Making a Difference with Pens
By Priyangwada Perera
“I did a census of my plastic pens today,” Fredrica Rudell writes, on wehatewaste.com. “The ones stashed in drawers, crammed into pencil cups and broken coffee mugs. I counted 19 in the kitchen, 18 in the den and 11 in the living/dining room. There were 34 in my study…eight in the bedroom and six in my purse. I found another 32 in my office, and 10 more in briefcases and bags.
En route to school, I harvested three from the glove compartment of my car —for a grand total of 141.” She adds, “The strange thing is, I don’t remember buying them. They seem to follow me home from meetings, events, hotels and conferences and end up staying permanently. Judging from the number of disposable pens in every nook and cranny of my home, I suspect that some of them are reproducing when I am not looking!”
Fredrica is not alone. I have four on the table, and another 10 I bought to include in a parcel of stationery items for charity. There are five more pens with my dad and five inside my bag, plus at least one in each room of my house. I love pens. I am very particular with which pens I use. Colours, normal, and gel, you name it I have all types of carbon pens. I also write very much. Belonging to a family of carbon-pen lovers makes it worse. We use each to its last drop of ink but we buy more before they end.
Billions of pens discarded annually
According to a recent study conducted by Environment Protection Agency (EPA) USA, Americans throw away 1.6 billion pens every year. That is just USA. If you add the rest of the world, multiplying by over 50 years of writing with disposable pens the amount can be imagined. The plastic and its metal nibs all end up in landfills. Putting facts in an easy to understand perspective, they say that if these bits of disposable pens are to be visualised, they are only the tip of the iceberg. After all, how many more piles of disposable pens have we not thrown out yet? Though we do not have the option of refillable carbon pens, we have happily forgotten the ink pens we once loved.
Even in the USA it is noted that people do not take the trouble to even refill the pens that can be refilled. South Asian countries such as India have brands which provide refills for carbon pens. However, it is interesting to note how we import the same pen from them and the imported pen does not come with refills. When it is a profit-centred business, it must be A.B.C. that you do not want to think what worked for your country should also work for another.
While in Delhi, I remember my ignorant surprise at how my undergraduate Indian friends would buy a refill instead of a new pen. Foolish as I was, I thought it was to cut down on money. Not as if you can save a million rupees. Soon, I myself learnt the secret. All of us foreigners followed the same, without much thought we were helping to save the world. It did not come as a big deal because the refills were readily available. Upon my return, I started to regret that Sri Lanka had no such plan. That was when we came across a Facebook post by a Medical Officer in Anaesthesiology and ICU from the Base Hospital Dambulla, Dr. Nipuna Jeewantha Wadimuna.
He was collecting empty ballpoint pens. Following a social media thread, we contacted Dr. Wadimuna who has also been an activist in tree planting, even during his last year at Medical College. Born in Medawachchiya, he grew up there till he entered the University of Peradeniya. That was where he met friends who were interested in doing more than just studies. “During my internship in 2019 at Kegalle District General Hospital I was unbelievably busy. Internship means 24-hour work, seven days a week for 13 months. We had so much writing to do.
I usually bought Atlas pens. One fine day I realised that my room was full of empty pens. I felt bad. It made me think about the plastic waste it creates. There was no way of finding a way to recycle them. Instead, I started collecting my empty pens. When my Co-House Officers questioned me as to what would come out of this, I had no answer. I did not know what to do with them or how to recycle them but I went on,” he explained.
Seeing his dedication, there were others who did the same on their own. Now, Dr. Wadimuna is at the Base Hospital of Dambulla but he still has all the pens he collected. He has continued his habit, despite not knowing what he would have to do with his collection. His friends and those known to him, had got inspired by this and had done the same. Imagine a collection from 2019. His collection inspired many of his mates from the junior batch to follow in his footsteps. “We need a good network to collect these pens and other single-use plastics. On top of it all, a proper way to recycle them. Media can be a part of this awareness programme,” he suggested.
A worthy collector
“I buy Atlas pens and I have so many. I think they launched a pilot programme on recycling. I know India does it. Many countries in the world do it. Sri Lanka being a small island, I think it is something we can do, if only we have a way to recycle plastic waste. There is no doubt about the importance of this. Now that I have collected all this, what can I do?” he asked.
Then again, Dr. Wadimuna added that it is not something an individual can do. “Collecting pens is something each individual can be responsible for. But in the long run, what can the Government do to minimise plastic waste, is the crucial question,” he emphasised. “The Government should be able to tell the major factories which produce ballpoint pens that they have to do a recycling project themselves. Either the Government should have such a plant for recycling or else, the Government could fund and help them launch one. Either way, it is an essential service which is going to improve many things,” Dr. Wadimuna was positive.
“When people as a collective or even as individuals work on their own on something worthwhile like this, someone or ideally the Government should facilitate it,” Dr. Wadimuna emphasised.
Initiative to collect pens
We can praise Dr. Wadimuna sky high, portray him here but let him lament with hundreds of collected ballpoint pens at home. Let his followers sleep with their collections of pens piling up in their rooms and do nothing. Instead, we approached Atlas Axillia Co. (Pvt) Ltd. this being Dr. Wadimuna’s preferred brand and undoubtedly one of Sri Lanka’s most popular. It was interesting to hear that they have started a project on recycling. The General Manager — Marketing at Atlas Axillia, Kaushali Kusumapala spoke of how they have already given recycling a thought.
“As Sri Lanka’s most-loved learning brand, we understand the importance of instilling good values at an early age. Thus, with the aim to inculcate the habit of protecting the environment in school children, we have partnered with the Ministry of Environment for a national-level initiative to collect plastic pens from schools across the country. With over 29,000kg of used pens discarded from schools in one school year in Sri Lanka, we believe that this initiative will help to direct as much of that plastic waste as possible towards recycling and responsible disposal mechanisms, while encouraging Sri Lanka’s future leaders to be environmentally conscious,” Kusumapala said.
She further added that Atlas, driven by eco-friendly ethos, have constantly innovated to reduce waste and become a more efficient and sustainable company. “Therefore, this initiative is a natural fit for us as we look to minimise our impact on the environment as the market leader for pens in Sri Lanka. On behalf of Atlas, I also take this opportunity to thank the Ministry of Environment and officials for their continued advice and support in this partnership,” Kusumapala was already set on their goal.
We can only hope that this would open an avenue for Dr. Wadimuna and his fellow collectors to return the empty pens to the company for recycling. If that works out, there is no doubt that they can initiate this to reach more volunteers. Who would not want to collect their pens, exactly in the way Dr. Wadimuna and his friends do? How much of a difference can a pen make? A recycled pen would mean reduced microplastics. Ink left in the pens would no longer contaminate soil and water. Neither would they be an added burden on the environmental cost of raw materials and production. It will cut down on the hefty environmental footprint plastic pens have.