Reuse, recycle, refill: writing the future with green pens

While conducting a “waste audit” on select campus trash bins, sustainability-minded Berkeley students discovered not just to-be-expected coffee-cup lids but a surprising assortment of oddball plastic items, from plastic bags to pipette trays and contact-lens cases.

“I had a whole team of four trying to figure out what each plastic was,” recalls fourth-year student Kristen Klein, coordinator of the Zero Waste Research Center, a project funded by students via a grant from The Green Initiative Fund (TGIF) .”We separated the plastics out, Nos. 1 through 7,” and wrote a “huge report” on the campus’s plastics footprint, she says.

Cutting waste: ‘there’s no silver bullet’

Kristen with pens

Tracking down “life-cycle” data on the plastics unearthed in campus trash cans involves “a lot of phone calls” to firms reluctant to disclose “proprietary information” on their products, says fourth-year student Kristen Klein.

Coming from an upstate New York high school with no recycling or composting in place, she was surprised to find a large community of Berkeley students passionate about sustainability and to realize there’s a “huge market” for sustainability programs beyond campus borders.

This summer, Klein parlayed her waste-reduction experience on campus into a job preparing water-disclosure reports for Constellation Brands, a major wine and spirits company. Now finishing up a society and environment focus in the College of Natural Resources, she hopes to work in business sustainability after graduation.

Klein notes that she once had a more naïve understanding of waste reduction: “It was ‘oh, just make things recyclable and we’ll recycle them.'”

But she soon realized there’s “a lot more to it,” she says. A particular plastic may be recyclable in theory, but how many chemicals are involved, how many miles does it have to be shipped, and is it cost effective? “There’s no silver bullet,” says Klein.

The campus is striving to meet the UC system’s aggressive sustainability goal of “zero waste” by 2020. And last year Berkeley became the first university in the world to sign onto the Plastics Disclosure Project, committing itself to track the lifecycle of plastics used on campus and to reduce its plastic waste.

Klein’s student team — via its unglamorous trash audits and time-consuming efforts to ascertain each plastic’s origin and ultimate fate — collected much of the baseline data for the first disclosure report, which is currently being finalized.

Pens, in particular, caught the attention of the students and staff committed to waste reduction. By weight or volume, they make up only a small fraction of the trash the campus sends to landfill. But this cheap, disposable writing tool — ubiquitous on a campus and typically made of “virgin” (vs. recycled) plastic — is a poster child for the throw-away mentality that zero-waste advocates decry.

“All we’re using is the ink,” notes Lin King, manager of Campus Recycling and Refuse Services. “When we’re out of gas, do we throw away our car?” he asks rhetorically. “So why are we using just the ink and then throwing the whole pen away?”

While there’s an effort afoot to recycle campus pens through Terracycle company’s “pen-recycling brigade,” it’s even more important, Klein notes, to “buy better products in the first place.”

So plans are in the works for a series of campus roadshows, where free samples of greener office products will be distributed, to encourage campus purchasers to make the shift.

Pilot’s “B2P” (bottle-to-pen) ballpoints, made of high-grade No. 1 plastic from recycled beverage containers, will be featured. So will the company’s ink refills (a once-standard system that, from a zero-waste perspective, is preferable to recycled-plastic pens), mechanical pencils with lead refills and refillable Dry Erase markers. The road shows will also showcase recyclable Post-it notepads, which use a plant-based adhesive for the sticky edge and come in a recycled paper box (vs. non-recyclable plastic-film wrapper).

The first greener office-products show is set for 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 14, at Campus Shared Services, 1608 4th St., Berkeley. Similar events will follow monthly at locations across campus; check recycle.berkeley.edu for times and locations.

Related information:

Past NewsCenter coverage on plastics and zero-waste may be found here.