Saturday, May 6, 2017

Small victory: A truly refillable roller-ball pen

In most ways, being an ecofrugal person makes my life simpler. There are a whole lot of things most people have to deal with that I simply skip over completely. I never have to pick up my clothes at the dry cleaner, because I won't buy clothes that aren't washable. I don't have to vacuum the house every week, because we don't have any carpets. I don't have to spend half an hour putting on makeup every morning, because all I normally use is a dab of concealer on any visible zits. And so on.

But every once in a while, my ecofrugal principles suddenly make my life a lot more complicated. In particular, this happens whenever something I own breaks or wears a pair of shoes, or an old Roman shade, or a wristwatch. A normal person would know exactly what to do in this situation: just go to the store and buy a new one. But since I hate to see anything go to waste, I usually twist myself into knots trying to repair the old one first. Then, if it becomes clear that there's no saving it, I throw myself into a frenzy of research trying to find the most ecofrugal possible replacement for it.

A rather extreme example of this came up last month, when I found one morning that nearly every pen I owned had either dried up or disappeared into the Land of Lost Pens. These were all just cheap, disposable roller-ball pens; I'd actually purchased most of them at the local dollar store, since I've found that the pens available there tend to work just as well, on average, as the full-priced ones they sell at Staples and such. And of course, I could easily have just gone back to the dollar store and bought some more.

But even though I'd been fine with doing just that up until now, for some reason the idea of it suddenly chafed. Perhaps it was because so many of my pens had failed all at once, but I suddenly had this sense of being caught in an endless cycle of waste, continually buying these plastic objects only to use them up and throw them away and buy new ones. It seemed like there had to be a better way.

The problem was, I'd tried "refillable" pens before, and I'd generally found them lacking. There are roller-ball pens (the kind I prefer) that are billed as refillable, but what this typically means is that they have two parts: an outer shell, and an insert that contains all the actual workings of the pen itself: a shaft filled with ink and a ball that dispenses it. In other words, a "refillable" roller-ball pen is really just a disposable roller-ball pen with a nice outer case. Moreover, these inserts typically aren't noticeably less expensive than a whole new pen, and they're definitely more expensive than the pens I'd been buying at the dollar store. Spending more money to buy something that's only marginally less wasteful didn't strike me as particularly ecofrugal.

For true pen connoisseurs, the obvious solution to this dilemma is to use a fountain pen. These come in several different types, all of them more ecofrugal than a so-called refillable roller-ball:
  • Cartridge pens take a disposable, self-contained cartridge filled with ink. You have to throw away these empty cartridges, but at least you don't have to discard the guts of the pen as well.
  • Many cartridge pens can be used with a cartridge converter, which fits into the pen just like a regular cartridge but can be refilled from any bottle of ink. These converters don't hold as much as a regular ink cartridge, so they have to be refilled more often, but you pay less per refill.
  • Some fountain pens have their own built-in filling systems, such as a piston or a pump, so you can refill them straight from the bottle. And most ecofrugal of all, some pens can be refilled with a syringe or an eyedropper. Because they use the whole body of the pen itself as the ink reservoir, they can go quite a long time on a tank. (There are also instructions online for converting a cartridge pen to an eyedropper pen.)
So in theory, a fountain pen should be the perfect choice for me. It's cheaper, it's less wasteful, and it makes you look like a real class act to whip out a fountain pen instead of a Bic Stick. There's just one problem: I cannot, literally cannot, write neatly with a fountain pen. I actually own two of them already, both received as gifts, and every time I try to use them I end up with ink all over myself. Maybe if I retrained myself to write differently, as this article suggests, I'd be able to manage it, but I suspect if I had to go to that much trouble just to use my new pen, I'd end up giving up on it and just buying some more cheap disposables.

What I really wanted was a roller-ball that could be refilled like a fountain pen. So I tried searching around on Google, and I found that there are indeed several pens that work this way. Many of them are a bit pricey, $20 or more, but I figured with what I'd save on the refills, spending a little more on the pen itself would be a worthwhile investment.

However, it turned out not to be necessary. When I dug a little deeper, searching for the best refillable roller-ball, I came upon this site for fountain pen enthusiasts, which offered several recommendations for Pilot V5 pens. These turned out to have very good reviews on, and moreover, they were only $3.20 apiece—barely more than you pay these days for a good disposable roller-ball at Staples. (They're also sold on, but the JetPens price is much better.) The V5 takes a cartridge refill, so it's not the most ecofrugal type, but it is easy to refill—and in case I decide later that I'm willing to do a little more work to save money and resources, at least one user says it can be converted to use an eyedropper. (Pilot also offers a "green" refillable pen that's made from 89% recycled plastic, but the refills it takes are the kind that contain the whole pen mechanism, not just the ink reservoir—so in my opinion, they're not actually as eco-friendly as the V5 Hi-Techpoint that I chose.)

Being a cautious consumer, I'd have liked to be able to go to a store and try this pen out before buying it, but after a quick search, I couldn't find any stores in my area that sold it. Still, I figured, at $3.20 apiece, it wasn't that big a risk to take. In fact, I went ahead and bought two of them, along with a pack of cartridge refills, figuring that if I had to pay for shipping anyway, I might as well get my money's worth. The whole order, including shipping, came to $13.35—less than half the price of many fancy refillable roller-ball pens that aren't any more highly rated than the Pilot. And this way, even if I manage to lose one of my nice new pens, I'll still have one to use.

So I am now the proud owner of not one, but two refillable Pilot pens, and I can honestly say they are everything I hoped they'd be. They feel solid and comfortable, and I can actually write a neat line with them. The only downside I've noticed is that ink in them is a little heavy, so when I fill out my bank register with these (yes, I still use a paper checkbook register, because I'm an old fossil), it bleeds through the pages and makes it harder to read what's on the other side. But since these pens are refillable, I can actually fix that problem by switching to a different kind of ink if I want to.

All this just goes to show that even on those rare occasions when my ecofrugal habits are a hassle in the short term, they actually guide me to better decisions that make my life simpler in the end. With these new, refillable pens, I should never have to worry again about having all my pens dry up on me at once—and I'll be spending less and wasting less, to boot. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of huge, life-changing move that will make a huge dent in my carbon footprint, like getting solar panels or switching to an electric car. But for me, eliminating any source of waste from my life—even a small one—is highly satisfying. Yes, it's only a small thing, but the ecofrugal life is a series of such small victories—each one bringing me ever closer to a truly waste-free life.

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