Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

IMG_7896I love free pens.

As a reporter and someone who writes copiously in my free time, always scribbling in notebooks both for work or for myself, free pens are awesome. They’re like being sponsored—free equipment!

If I had a pen sponsor the company would have to be TD Bank. Their pens are basically my go-to: every time I pop in to deposit a check I grab one, maybe two. Green TD Bank pens are stashed in four different spots in my car, live in my computer bag, hide alongside my notebooks and ride shotgun all day in my front right pants pocket.

In exchange TD Bank gets lots advertisement out of me. The other day I was in line at the post office and a woman was looking around for a pen. I pulled one out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it,” I said, “I get them for free.”

Cashiers and servers are often impressed when you pull your own pen out of your pocket to sign the slip. “TD Bank” — there it is again.

And there’s no feeling more satisfying than using a pen until it’s bled dry. When it scratches its way across a notepad, empty of its usual inky glide, I feel a sense of accomplishment: it’s proof I’ve dedicated a certain measurable amount of time to writing, that I’ve invested in my craft. Years ago I never used to run pens dry; I would lose them well before that was ever a risk. But these days I write enough that it occurs fairly regularly.

Lately, however, I’ve been looking askew at those stacks and stacks of pens. Every one I run dry makes me wince. I toss them in the trash after their last word and I hesitate: isn’t that a lot of waste?

Think about it: when I run a pen dry, it still works. The spring mechanism that clicks the point from retraction into action still operates perfectly. The plastic shell is intact. Even the ink cartridge remains. Everything about the pen is fine, still in perfect working order, it’s just out of ink.

But for my TD pens, this is the point they becomes useless. The only thing left to do is discard them, then swing by the bank to grab two more.

It’s a bit like driving a car until it runs out of gas and deciding to walk away: there’s no problem with the machine, but the liquid that makes it useful is spent. Fill up station? No, there are none of those.

When I just lost pens I never had to think about it—they disappeared without me ever considering their end. But when I’m running them dry, bleeding them to the point they have nothing more to give, I am forced to stare their untimely death in the face. And like I said, as a writer I find myself doing this a lot.

But then I go into my local TD Bank branch, where the bucket of pens is always full. From one perspective there is an endless supply; the cars will keep running out of gas, but there will always be another full one available. And apparently for free.

But really? Are these pens really “free”? I don’t mean in a monetary sense; I mean in the sense of consequences, in the sense of an endless supply. Plastic pens are not apples—they do not grow on trees. They are not the result of some miraculous act of nature that transforms sunlight and rainwater into ballpoint and ink. Pens are plastic, an oil-based technology. They require fossil fuel to make, and when they find their way into the garbage they do not decompose. They are offered up as free gifts, but the are only “free” in the banking sense of the word.

In the global sense, however, plastic is plastic, and it’s not going away. It is turning up everywhere: filling landfills, clogging up the oceans, killing wildlife. A new study found that microplastics—tiny shards of polymers now found throughout the world’s waterways—are stunting the growth of some young fish and killing others.

Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce.

The growing problem of microplastics – tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry – has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.

Microplastics are near-indestructible in natural environments. They enter the oceans through litter, when waste such as plastic bags, packaging and other convenience materials are discarded. Vast amounts of these end up in the sea, through inadequate waste disposal systems and sewage outfall.

“Convenience materials.” That sounds like my pens. And my grocery bags (I have two fabric bags, but I don’t always remember them). And my food packaging. It sounds like so much and so many of the everyday things we buy: toothbrush packaging and the toothbrushes itself; sunscreen bottles; electronic accessories; a new windshield ice scraper. Kayaks. Car parts. Tupperware. Printers. Plastics. Plastics everywhere. They are literally everywhere.

IMG_1043What does “disposable” mean? Where does “disposable” go? These are questions we don’t really wrestle with. There is not time to wrestle with them. They are big and unwieldy and quite frankly depressing. They seem too big to tackle, a societal issue that will never get solved.

But it has real implications. In the Pacific Ocean there is a patch of floating garbage roughly the size of Texas. It is called the Pacific Trash Vortex, a place where discarded refuse goes to swim. And as most of it is plastic, it will swim forever.

Add that to climate change, to ocean acidification, to coral bleaching and glaciers melting. There is a Texas of trash out in the ocean. And the Texas estimate is a conservative guess.

But I get free pens. So it’s convenient at least.

This is not someone else’s problem. This is something that is happening because of my doing, my contribution. Like so many of us, I live in a world of convenience. Like so many of us, I recognize I’m contributing to a bleak outcome but have no idea how to approach it differently. How do you change a society? How do we change our reliance on ease, find our way back to an era when what we “threw away” had a shot at actually going away? Even more basic, how do I change myself, my habits that make up a small part of the whole? Can I even do that.

That is ours to wrestle with, and we better wrestle fast: Trash Texas is growing. If our habits remain unchanged it will eventually cover the Earth.

I read a book recently by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. In the final chapter he wrote:

I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct.

What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed…

Watching another pen fall into the trash, I can’t help but hear his words echoing in my ears. I too wonder if we can outlast them unscathed.

 

Note: In researching this I found a place in California that recycles pens! Not enough to solve things, but hey, it’s a start. Also TD Bank recommends removing the internal mechanisms and recycling the plastic shell with other plastics. They were very quick in getting back to me:

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