The 6 Best Eco-Friendly Pens of 2021

Scribble away sustainably with these eco-friendly pens.

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More and more cities and states are passing legislation to ban plastic bags and straws, but rarely do we think about the impact of the ink pen. Most of us own too many of them, even if it feels like you can never find one when you need it. Almost none of those pens are recyclable because they’re made of a combination of different types of plastic, metal, and ink. A large portion of them will end up in the landfill…and in that weird place in your car that is just out of reach. The ones that don’t make it to the landfill will eventually become part of the microplastics problem, polluting our oceans and land.

But the tide is beginning to change. Companies have heard the call for eco-friendly alternatives to the typical plastic rollerball, gel, or ballpoint ink pen. You can find pens made from alternative materials like cork, wheat, or corn. Other pens at least prevent the creation of new plastic by being made from post-consumer recycled plastic or cardboard waste. Refillable fountain pens reduce plastic waste because you can either refill the ink or replace only the internal ink cartridge. Because preferences for pens are so personal and differ from person to person, you’ll likely have to try out more than one to get just the right glide, grip, weight, and feel for you.

Although none on the market today are perfectly sustainable, below are a few of the most eco-friendly pens for you to consider the next time you’re in the market for a new writing utensil.

The Rundown
Refillable from an ink bottle or accepting cartridges and made from fast-growing bamboo.
Colorful, lightweight pens made with recyclable and biodegradable cardboard.
Best Refillable Ballpoint:
Seltzer Seven Year Pen at Givesimple.com
Made in Switzerland, this pen comes in cute colors and designs, and has a large ink reservoir so it lasts.
These pens are made in the United States from domestically recycled plastic bottles.
Made from recycled kraft paper with 85% less plastic, Earth Pen is carbon neutral.
Multi-award-winning high performance pen with German craftsmanship.

Best Overall: Zenzoi Handcrafted Bamboo Wood Fountain Pen Set

Zenzoi Handcrafted Bamboo Wood Fountain Pen Set

It’s challenging to choose a best overall pen because none on the market are flawless. Even those that use biodegradable materials aren’t 100% compostable. Fountain pens are a top choice when considering the environment because they could theoretically last a lifetime, but they are also more expensive and require one to handle bottled ink.

The Zenzoi Bamboo Fountain Pen is a great choice if you’d like to try a fountain pen for the first time. Most of the outer portion of the pen is made from fast-growing bamboo and the pen itself comes in a bamboo box. Bamboo is considered more sustainable than many other wood products because it grows quickly and uses few resources. However, it’s difficult to determine where Zenzoi’s bamboo comes from or whether it is sustainably sourced regarding pesticide use, deforestation, and other factors.

The nib or tip of the pen is made in Germany. The pen includes a converter inside the pen for use with bottled ink, or the pen can be used with international standard ink cartridges. The cartridges must be purchased separately and are generally made of plastic and are likely not easily recycled.

They are handcrafted and come with a 100% money-back guarantee.

Best Budget & Bulk: Simply Genius Eco Friendly Pens

Simply Genius Eco Friendly Pens

Higher cost is often among the top reasons people give for not making a more sustainable choice. If you can buy in bulk, you can save money overall. Thankfully, Simply Genius pens are affordable, functional, and partly biodegradable. They’ve made several improvements over a typical plastic pen, reducing the amount of plastic by more than half. These lightweight ballpoint pens have barrels made of recyclable cardboard. The tips and ends—in five colors—are made of a 50/50 mixture of BPA-free plastic and wheat stalk. ABS is derived from petroleum and is not biodegradable.

They come in a pack of 100, and depending on where you buy them, you can find them for as low as $0.25 each. The inside parts look like a typical pen. They’re disposable and only the cardboard shaft is recyclable.

Because they’re cardboard, they’re not quite as indestructible as a plastic pen. Consider giving them as gifts to office mates and students, as stocking stuffers, or to introduce the idea to friends and family.

Best Refillable Ballpoint: Seltzer Seven Year Pen

Seltzer Seven Year Pen

A refillable pen cuts down on waste because when your pen runs out of ink, you only need to discard and replace the inside of the pen—usually the plastic part that holds the ink that connects to the tip. Compared to a traditional disposable plastic pen, refillable pens reduce waste by about 50%. There are a lot of refillable ballpoint pens on the market and they’ve been around for decades. Perhaps the main thing to consider is whether the pen accepts universal refills made by other companies or if they only accept refills from the original manufacturer. If the refill must be specific to the manufacturer, then choose a manufacturer that is likely to be around with refills that are widely available in the future when you need to buy them.

The Seltzer Seven Year Pen is a great option. Seltzer used math to come up with the name of their pen. Each pen holds a large volume of ink that will last you an estimated seven years, assuming you use 1 to 2 meters of ink per day, times 365 days, times seven years. That naming was intentional to get us all to think about the sustainability of the things in our lives that we consider disposable.

These pens are made in Switzerland, a country known for its high rate of waste recycling and extensive use of sustainable energy like solar and wind. The parts of the pen are meant to last since it is refillable. The shaft is made of plastic and the tip is aluminum alloy. It comes in a variety of cute colors and designs that would make great gifts and the refill is under $2. I’ll be ordering the pen in my hero’s namesake: the Ruth Bader Ginsberg pen that has her face on the top and the words “Speak the Ruth” along the clip.

Seltzer is a women-led company based in Asheville, North Carolina, that also sells a variety of other products that are made in the United States by small businesses that also care about the environment.

Best Recycled: Pilot Bottle 2 Pen Retractable Ballpoint Pens

Pilot Bottle 2 Pen Retractable Ballpoint Pens

Some manufacturers have tried to improve their environmental efforts by making new lines of pens from recycled materials. Although not fully sustainable, they’re an improvement over the majority of pens on the market.

B2P stands for Bottle-2-Pen. They’re made in the United States from domestically sourced recycled plastic bottles. The Pilot B2P Refillable Retractable Gel Pen and B2P ballpoint pens are made from 89% and 83% recycled plastic bottles, respectively. They’re refillable so you can cut down on plastic waste that way too.

You can get them in blue, black, red, green, and purple with matching barrel colors that you can see through so you know when ink is getting low. The latex-free rubber grip is soft and customers like it feel and glide. The insides of the pen are typical Pilot so if you liked their standard version, this could be an easy switch to head in the right direction. They accept a range of Pilot refills so you’ll have options like the color and fineness of the tip.

Best Biodegradable: Eco Pen Club The Earth Pen Multipack

Eco Pen Club The Earth Pen Multipack

As far as we know, there is not yet a 100% biodegradable pen on the market. However, many like the Eco Pen Club’s Earth Pen, which has a recycled kraft paper body made from wood pulp. It, therefore, has about 85% less plastic than a traditional pen and is compostable and recyclable if dismantled. They’re manufactured in a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified factory.

The ink in the pens and used on the packaging is water- or soy-based and eco-friendly. The company also prides itself on the fact that it offsets more carbon than it emits. The packaging is recycled kraft paper, and the company uses the shipper Sendle, which is carbon-neutral because it funds renewable energy projects in developing countries.

Eco Pen Club plants a tree for every pack sold through One Tree Planted to help with reforestation efforts for the Australian bushfires. Like many of the biodegradable pens on the market, these are not yet refillable. 

Best Splurge: Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen

Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen

If you’re already accustomed to using a fountain pen and you’re ready to spend more on top quality, the LAMY 2000 Fountain Pen might be for you. The pen itself is made from a combination of matte black fiberglass with brushed stainless steel known as Makrolon. Crafted in Germany, it’s classy without being flashy. This pen features a hooded rhodium-plated 14karat gold nib and uses a piston-filling mechanism to fill from bottled ink. It will not accept cartridges.

Since LAMY tests each pen as a final step in manufacturing, you can be sure you’re getting quality. It has won multiple design awards and is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art.

Final Verdict

While no one pen is entirely environmentally beneficial, there are a number of options worth trying that will help you kick the disposable plastic pen habit. Since you can never find a pen when you’re looking for one, consider buying a pack of 100 Simply Genius Eco-Friendly Retractable Ballpoint Pens (view at Walmart) made from recycled cardboard to spread throughout your home, school, and office. Then choose a few fun Seltzer Seven Year Pens (view at Give Simple) that you’ll want to refill and keep forever and one or two high-quality fountain pens to keep in high use areas like your desk where you’re not likely to lose them.

What to Look for Eco-Friendly Pens

Disposable, Refillable, or Fountain?

Perhaps the first feature to consider when choosing your pen is whether it's disposable, refillable, or a fountain pen. Traditional fountain pens have a built-in reservoir that is opened and ink can be poured in from a bottle. Some modern fountain pens are designed so that you can choose to either refill the bladder with ink or change out a cartridge to avoid handling loose ink. Refillable pens generally have a reusable outer shell and you purchase separate internal parts that include the ink and point.

Fountain pens that have a reservoir that can be refilled from an ink bottle are better for the environment because the only waste is the packaging at purchase and the container that holds the ink for refills. Many ink containers are made from recyclable plastic or glass. The other environmental impacts to consider are the materials used to make the pen and the energy used in manufacturing.

A refillable pen might also seem like a great choice, but look out for what the disposable portion of the pen is made from. Try to choose refills made from non-plastic material, or if made from plastic, then a post-consumer recycled plastic would be greener.

You might think you should never use a disposable pen. But some find that they don’t like handling the ink refill of a fountain pen. It can stain, spill, or leak in the process. Refillable pens have their downsides as well. If you are prone to losing refills or are bad at following through with purchasing them, you may end up sticking with standard plastic disposables. Some believe that eco-friendly disposable pens are worth using if they’ll help you develop new habits so you’ll permanently transition away from plastic-based pens.

Materials

Some eco-friendly pens are still considered disposable. That’s because they’re made from sustainably produced, biodegradable, or post-consumer recycled materials. Pens made from fast-growing bamboo or agricultural waste corn or wheat are considered sustainable and biodegradable. You’ll also find pens on the market made from recycled plastic bottles and recycled cardboard.

Pay attention to what material makes up each part of the pen. Some will use a combination of recycled, recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable materials with or without metal and plastic. Most refillable and fountain pens are still made from standard plastic, metal, and other materials, and their eco-friendliness is limited to the fact that they are refillable either with cartridges or from an ink bottle.

All About Ink

It’s pretty easy to go down the rabbit hole when researching inks. When reading reviews, you’ll notice customers mention whether an ink “glides well.” To glide, the ink must be just the right thickness to flow out smoothly and evenly so that you don’t have to overwrite, and without flooding, clumping, or clogging.

To accomplish this feat over the years, ink manufacturers have used a wide variety of chemicals. These chemicals could be pigments that make the lasting color, carriers that keep the pigment in a liquid flowing form, and additives that serve a function like prolonging shelf-life or preventing clumping.

Early inks used petroleum-based solvents as the carrier, making up about 70% of the ink by volume. These solvents are toxic to work with in manufacturing. More recently, the toxic solvents have been replaced by soy or other vegetable-based carriers or water. These newer carriers are much more sustainable and healthier for workers and our air quality.

The pigments themselves haven’t changed much over the years. When researching pigments, many focus on how long the pigments will last without fading or degrading.

So look for mention of soy, vegetable, or water-based ink on the label or product description. A Soy Seal label ensures that the ink is between 6% and 40% soy. 

FAQs

Can I recycle conventional pens?

Conventional pens are generally not accepted in your recycling. That’s because they are all made differently and they generally are made of a combination of multiple types of metal and plastic, while also containing ink residues.

But Terracycle’s Zero Waste Box offers an easy-to-use recycle-by-mail solution. Recycle pens and pen caps, mechanical and wooden pencils, markers and marker caps, permanent markers, and permanent marker caps all in one box. The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products. Even the small box is pretty large, however, so you might consider joining together with friends or family to fill a box or ask if they already have one. Many schools and businesses use this recycling system so you may be able to add yours there as well.

Are pencils more sustainable than pens?

Unless you’re using eco-friendly pencils, most are made from basswood grown and harvested in China. Although they’re made from trees, basswood grows relatively quickly, about two feet per year, reaching 20 to 30 feet tall in less than 20 years. Graphite used for the lead of pencils is also mined in China.

Much more energy is used to make a pen, whose plastic is made from petroleum and often contains metal that is mined and smelted in a variety of locations.

If you’ve ever sharpened your pencil to a nubbin, you know that pens generally last longer than pencils. But most pencils are also compostable if you remove any metal used to hold an eraser.

Overall, the average pencil is “more sustainable” than the average disposable pen. But many types of eco-friendly pens and pencils are available today and many at comparable prices. So if you can, opt for eco-friendly and use your pen, or pencil, to check this one off your list.   

Are refillable pens eco-friendly?

The short answer is that it's relative. Refillable pens aren’t as sustainable as pencils or fountain pens. But they’re certainly a better choice than a typical plastic disposable pen.

Refillable pens allow you to replace the inner ink cartridge, usually replacing the ballpoint or other tip as well. So when you’ve run out of ink, if you buy and use a refill, you’re only tossing about half the pen in the landfill (its insides). If you choose a high-quality refillable pen, the outer portion could last many decades, also assuming refills will be available throughout the life of the pen.

If you haven’t yet, give a fountain pen a try. You can always go back to refillables or eco-friendly disposables if it’s not the right fit for you.

Why Trust Treehugger?

Lorraine Wilde tries to learn as much as she can about the cutting edge of environmental science, technology, health, and conservation. She’s proud to help consumers make healthy, informed, and environmentally-conscious choices to protect their families and our planet. She also holds a Master’s degree in environmental science and uses that education to frame her consumer choices one product at a time.