Ink cartridges are a convenient way of ensuring you have a ready supply of ink for your fountain pen, no matter where you go. For people who can’t always sit in one place to write, like students going to different lecture theaters, police officers on their rounds, and itinerant preachers, they are indispensable. But are they eco-friendly?
Some ink cartridges are recyclable, but if they still have ink residue, recyclers will discard them as the recycling process only works on plastic molecules. Check the box for the recycling icon. It’s three arrows forming a triangle with a number in the middle. If it’s absent, they aren’t recyclable.
There are two issues here. The first is whether you should put plastic cartridges in the recycling bin and whether they can be melted down and re-used to make something else. The second is whether you can re-use empty cartridges by refilling them with ink. There is a concern for the environment in both cases and what effect using and discarding these disposable items can have on it.
What Are Ink Cartridges Made Of?
Ink cartridges used to be made of thin copper tubing or glass when they were first invented, but these days they consist of molded plastic. International cartridges fit many different pens, but some pen manufacturers like Lamy, Parker, Cross, Sailor, Namiki, and Waterman have developed proprietary cartridges.
The object of having proprietary cartridges is mainly to discourage the use of the lower quality inks in standard international cartridges, which may not be ideal for use in high-quality pens. The other reason is that the large pen makers also make inks to go with their pens, and they naturally want you to buy their ink and no other. They, therefore, engineer the pen so that it can use only their particular cartridge.
Although there are undoubtedly commercial motives behind this, it is also conceivable that they want you to have a good writing experience with their products. If you use an inferior quality ink that does not write well, you might be inclined to blame the pen. Whatever the reason, there is a proliferation of ink cartridges of various shapes and designs that ultimately adds to the worldwide problem of waste generation.
If using cheap ballpoint pens by the million creates a severe waste problem, how is this any different from using plastic ink cartridges? One of the reasons many people tout the use of fountain pens is because they are a more environmentally friendly solution than cheap disposable plastic pens. This is only the case, however, if you use bottled ink and not cartridges. If you are worried about environmental sustainability, you should use a pen with a filling mechanism like a converter to draw ink up from a bottle.
Some makers of fountain pens are becoming more environmentally conscious, and most make converters that either come with the pen or can be bought separately. Some fountain pens have built-in piston fills, so they don’t require a converter for filling. The TWSBI Diamond, Pelikan Classic M200, and Lamy 2000 are examples of these. Even if the initial cost is higher, considering that if you buy one, it can last you the rest of your life, this is probably a mountain of cheap plastic ballpoints you will not be contributing to landfills.
Not all Lamy pens have piston fills, but Lamy cartridges are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is recyclable. Its cartridges also have the recycling logo on them. Kaweco has also said that their cartridges are recyclable. Unfortunately, many other manufacturers don’t indicate whether their cartridges are recyclable.
Products made of HDPE usually have the recycling logo with a 2 in the middle. HDPE was invented in the 1950s and so is relatively new. It is one of the most commonly recycled plastics and is made into bottles, pens, and picnic tables after recycling.
Even with cartridges, a fountain pen is still a more sustainable and environmentally friendly writing instrument than a cheap ballpoint. It is better to use a fountain pen than just about any other cheap disposable plastic pen, regardless of the type of ink it uses.
Can You Refill An Ink Cartridge?
You can refill a cartridge, but it gets messy, and the collar on the cartridge that connects it to the pen wears out after around four or five uses. They also don’t take much ink, so you will quickly exceed those four or five re-uses.
While the eco-warriors among us may say that this still prevents another four or five cartridges from going into the trash, there is a better solution. Many manufacturers make converters that are essentially refillable cartridges that fit onto the back of the pen just like a cartridge. It can be used many times over. They don’t, however, save the mobility problem, and for some, it’s just not feasible to carry a bottle of ink around with them.
If you want to refill a cartridge, buy a bottle of ink and a blunt-end plastic syringe without the needle. You cannot use an eyedropper because the hole in the cartridge is too small. Fill the syringe with one ml of ink from the bottle.
Yes, fountain pen cartridges hold only a tiny amount of ink! Put the syringe’s nozzle into the hole in the cartridge and slowly eject the ink into it. Depending on its size, the cartridge may not even be able to take the full 1 ml. You don’t want to fill the cartridge up to the brim because this could make a mess. Leave a little space for some air in the cartridge.
Many cartridges cannot be resealed after they’ve been used, so you will have to insert the filled cartridge into your pen immediately after you have filled it. You won’t be able to carry refilled cartridges around as spares because you can’t reseal them.
Some people say that you can successfully reseal them with melted wax or a glue gun, but you try this at your own risk. They say that you can carry your refilled cartridges in a small tin with some paper towel for padding, and they don’t leak because the surface tension of the ink in the cartridge holds it in place.
In the long run, it is probably less trouble, cheaper, and worth your while to buy a converter for your pen than to refill cartridges. If, for some reason, you can’t do this, then try refilling your cartridges. Bear in mind that they do wear out with time, and you may not be able to reload them too many times.
Another factor to consider is that cartridges are much more expensive than ink bought in bottles. The color range of bottled ink is far greater than that of ink cartridges too. Unless you absolutely need to use a cartridge for mobility reasons, you can easily avoid doing so if you have a fountain pen. Another incentive not to use cartridges is that, ultimately, they are much more expensive than bottled ink.
Some fountain pen ink cartridges are made of recyclable plastic, and the manufacturer explicitly says so on the packaging. Cartridges made by other manufacturers may be recyclable even though this is not stated. You can also recycle them yourself by refilling used ink cartridges from a bottle of ink. If you don’t like the idea of cartridges at all and can’t be bothered with re-using them, buy a fountain pen that has a self-filling mechanism or use a converter.