Plastics, a Four-Letter Word

Sir David Attenborough is a bit of a crusader. At an age when many people have succumbed to tartan slippers and mobility scooters - or worse, the ultimate bed-rest - he's still out there, bringing the natural world into our living rooms. And despite being a nonagenarian, albeit a nationally treasured one, he still has the ability to make us feel ashamed for the way we treat our little Blue Planet, especially in terms of plastics. And rightly so.

Plastic has become a four-letter word: it's the asbestos of the 21st century. When liquids - milk, fizzy drinks - started being available in plastic bottles instead of glass ones, we thought it was great. No more seas of shattered glass should you drop your bottle of Tizer; just a bit of a bounce, maybe. And no more birds pecking at the silver tops of your milk bottles. Fabulous. (Though probably quite disappointing for the birds.)

Like asbestos, plastic has its uses, but it comes at a price. And that price isn't worth paying anymore. We managed before its invention, after all. We made do with glass bottles for years and years; yes, they're heavy, and yes, they might break, but glass doesn't wrap itself around marine animals' breathing apparatus and drown them. And you can melt it down and turn it into another glass thing: it's entirely recyclable, unlike plastic.

Lots of pens are made from plastic, and so are lots of refills. We sell pens - and refills - so we decided to take a look at some of the biggest manufacturers of writing implements and see what measures they've taken to reduce their reliance on plastic.

First up - and there's no particular order, by the way - is Schneider. They are super-serious about their responsibilities to the environment and take every opportunity to improve their processes, not only to meet eco-standards, but exceed them. Over 20 years ago they were the first in the industry to be certified by EMAS, the most stringent environmental management system. They have a very high rate (85%) of component reuse: any waste or faulty parts produced in the plastic moulding shop are ground up there and then and returned to the production process. They have increased their use of recycled and biobased plastics and come up with products such as the Breeze rollerball, which is 100% recycled, and the Line-Up and Link-It pens, which are 85% bio-based plastic and carbon neutral to boot. Their packaging is made from 80% recycled paper. Even the electricity used in the factory is from regenerative sources, and materials are sourced from suppliers located as locally as possible. They even have 70 e-bikes as part of their 'car' pool!

And then we have STABILO. They were the first manufacturer of wooden pencils to be FSC-certified, and followed that up with using 30% less energy in its processes and increasing its recycling rate, also by 30%. They have always kept bang up to date with cutting-edge technology in order to minimise the impact on the environment. They're particularly proud of the STABILO GREEN range, which comprises products made from sustainable wood or recycled plastic. The GREENpoint is the latest addition to the family, a fibre tip pen that is 98% recycled. They also have the retractable Pointball, manufactured from 79% recycled plastic.

As for Pentel, they strive to ensure that all natural resources, including energy, are used economically and responsibly, and they promote the use of packaging made from recycled materials. Inspired by the three Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle - all the products in their Recycology range are made from more than 50% recycled materials, and many of them are long-lasting, refillable and/or reusable. The range includes solid favourites such as the smooth-writing EnerGel rollerballs, the superb Sign Pens and - naturally - the beloved Ball Pentel R50.

Staedtler uses innovative technology to continually improve the efficiency of its processes. They create products that last, to ensure that raw materials, CO2 emissions and waste is kept to a minimum. And they are, of course, FSC- and PEFC-certified.

WOPEX is one of these innovative technologies. It's made using a super-efficient production process that uses fewer raw materials, less energy and minimises waste. Pencils made this way have a comfortable, non-slip grip and highly break-resistant lead.

Raw materials, including wood content from PEFC-certified German forests, are processed and the resulting composite is extruded into one extremely long pencil strand which is cooled before being cut into shorter pencil lengths, the sort that will fit into a pencil case. This was how Staedtler made the world's longest pencil (we still have a bit of it in the meeting room - have a read of the blog we wrote in 2016 if you'd like to refresh your memory).

Pilot's brand ethos is very much one of encouraging a friendlier and more sustainable approach to environmental awareness. They gained full EMAS certification in 2011 and choose to collaborate with other like-minded partners. Their ‘Be Green’ product range includes the B2P ballpoints and gel pens, which are made with up to 94% of the PET from recycled plastic bottles. They're even shaped like a bottle!

And last - but certainly not least - is Uni-ball. They have introduced plastic-free packaging in the UK. It's 100% PEFC-certified cardboard, which is completely biodegradable and recyclable. The board is climate-neutral and the ink used is vegetable- rather than mineral-based. The varnish is non-toxic and water-based, which does not damage the environment and can be safely composted, and uses energy-efficient UV light to finish. Even the litho printing process is free of chemicals and alcohol, and uses the least amount of paper and water possible.

But it's not just what the pens come in: they've applied this new green criteria to their logistics too. Outer boxes have been redesigned to increase pallet capacity, so less 'fresh air' is transported. Shrink wrap, too, is now produced from 100% recyclable polyethylene, and they're looking at introducing vegetable-based and cardboard pallet wraps as well. 97% of Uni-ball's waste has now been diverted away from landfill, and they're looking to improve on this figure. On top of this, low energy LED lighting is in place in their UK facilities, and a solar panel project is planned for 2020.

This is encouraging news, especially as Schneider, STABILO, Pentel, Staedtler, Pilot and Uni-ball are six of the leading stationery manufacturers in the world. If you'd like to read more about their environmental policies, it's all on their websites (and it's not in tiny writing or legal-speak either).

They are putting their money where their mouths are, leading by example, and encouraging others - fellow pen makers as well as the man and woman on the street - to do likewise. Anything we can do to say NO to plastics - from using refillable pens and FSC-certified notebooks to eating loose fruit and vegetables and throwing plastic milk bottles in the recycling box and not the waste bin - is better than doing nothing. It's the big players that make the most difference when they change their methods and their attitude, simply because of the size of their operations, but it's us - the little people - who can stand up and stimulate the change. If Sir David can do it, despite his advanced years, so can we.

And, speaking of 'we', what are we doing? Well, we're by no means perfect, so we're starting a project to reduce plastic use in our packaging. At the moment, the padded envelopes we use have some plastic in them, and while we try to keep it to the minimum required to avoid damage, we do use some bubble-wrap. We're invistigating alternatives to these, to find the best way to reduce waste that can't be easily recycled, while still protecting your precious pens on their way to you.

27 August 2019

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