Friday, 16 January 2009

The Little Details of a Sustainable Life

My plastic pen has just run out of ink. I dismantled it and found that it has a replaceable ink cartridge. Good. I searched on-line for a supplier but could only find suppliers in Japan and the USA. Bad.

This got me thinking about all the pens in use in the UK at this moment. I have around twenty pens and pencils that I have bought, inherited or somehow acquired over the last five years. Some are biros, some are disposables, some are felt tips and some carry encouraging messages such as "I used to be a cd case!" or "Made from recycled vending cups." All of them are little symbols of our society's stark predicament because each one of those little plastic constructions is doomed to be landfilled. Pen manufacture, like the manufacture of so much else, is not a closed loop system. Pen manufacture requires the processing of low-energy, finite resources into high energy products but because these products exist in a universe defined by the second law of thermodynamics, they must in time proceed towards a lower energy end point.

Consider the pens made from recycled cd cases or the pencils made from vending cups. Most major environmental organisations have boxes of these to hand out at events. In order to manufacture these, the original source material (the recyclate) had to be processed, using input energy (probably from a pollution producing non-renewable source), to become the secondary product - the pen. When the secondary product has fulfilled its purpose it is landfilled. At each stage of the manufacture there are waste products as the creation of ordered structure equilibrates with the background disorder (entropy) of the universe as required by the second law. Have you ever seen a pen with this written on it: "I used to be a cd case then a pen then a child's toy and now I'm a pen again and then I am going to be a cd case again!" Even if it was possible to organise this level of recycling, each stage in the lifecycle would have to be bought with energy inputs and waste products. Another way of articulating the second law - "there's no such thing as a free lunch."

One day I was sharpening a pencil which used to be vending cups, feeling smug and environmentally responsible. I watched the shavings of recycled vending cup fall into the black bin bag and my smugness fell with them. You can give yourself the illusion that you have cheated the second law of thermodynamics but as it is one of the non-negotiable laws of the universe it will only ever be an illusion.

So what would be a sustainable pen? A sharpened birds feather and a ceramic pot of ink made from plants.

Taking the basic principles of the quill, I am sure it is possible for humanity, with all its endeavour and creative genius, to invent a sustainable pen for the 21st century. It would be made entirely from biodegradable natural products and would require minimal energy to manufacture. Ideally it would be manufactured using only energy derived from wind or sun. Perhaps such a product already exists?

So next time you're in a meeting discussing matters of great weight and import - how to develop a sustainable society perhaps - have a look round the table at the pens people use. The revolution or transformation in lifestyle required to achieve a sustainable society permeates to the smallest details of everyday life. We'll know when we're succeeding when everyone is using that new fangled natural pen alluded to above, and we'll laugh to think we once used to congratulate ourselves for using a pen that used to be a cd case.

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