According to the EPA, Americans throw away 1.6 billion pens every year. These writing instruments are made primarily of non-biodegradable plastic, along with rubber grips and potentially toxic ink, so it’s important to know how to recycle pens and markers to keep them out of landfill.
Why you should recycle pens and markers
Even though we don’t write that much in today’s digital world, pens still don’t last all that long. If you don’t use up all the ink, they’ll dry out eventually. So it’s easy to end up with a bunch of old, useless pens lying around.
Pens and markers can be composed of a range of materials, including plastics such as polypropylene, nylon, and polyester, as well as steel, ink, and various chemicals.
It is important to keep plastic casing and lids out of landfill because not only do they take hundreds of years to break down, when they do, damaging microplastics can enter our ecosystems and even end up in our bloodstream!
Additionally, the residual ink may be toxic. Although the ink from pens, markers, and highlighters is considered “minimally toxic” from a health perspective, the chemicals it contains can build up to dangerous quantities if allowed to leach into the natural environment through our soils or waterways.
All of this means that it’s important to keep pens and markers out of landfill by recycling them, or finding other ways to dispose of them responsibly.
How to recycle pens and markers properly
Unfortunately, most recycling facilities don’t accept pens and markers, mostly because it’s difficult to salvage the plastic and other recyclable materials from other components. Having said that, there are a few that do, so your first stop should be to check Earth911’s online search tool to see if there’s a facility in your area.
You’ll probably need to make use of a mail-in program to recycle your old pens and markers. To mitigate shipping costs as much as possible, it’s a good idea to collect up your pens and send them in bulk once you have enough.
For example, you can use TerraCycle, a company that specializes in taking difficult-to-recycle items. TerraCycle partners with Sharpie and Paper Mate to recycle all kinds of writing instruments including pens, markers, caps, highlighters, and mechanical pencils.
Note that you’ll need to send in a minimum of five pounds, which translates into several hundred pens. Consider asking around your friends, co-workers, or your child’s school to see if they have extra pens for recycling.
Other options for recycling pens include:
- Crayola runs a take-back program called ColorCycle, but they only accept products from their brand.
- Dixon Ticonderoga has a similar program, but this is also only for markers from their brand, and you need to send in a minimum of seven pounds at a time
Alternatives to recycling pens
If you don’t want to pay for a mail-in program, or don’t have enough pens to make it worthwhile, there are other ways to dispose of your writing instruments and art supplies responsibly. Additionally, there are some steps you can take to avoid having to recycle your pens and markers in the first place!
Buy sustainable pens and markers
One of the best ways to tackle the issue of recycling these challenging items is to avoid having to recycle them in the first place by choosing biodegradable or refillable pens.
If you don’t want to have to recycle pens and markers, here are some great alternatives to buy in the first place:
- You can buy refillable pens with disposable ink cartridges such as these refillable ball point pens.
- Go truly old school and opt for a traditional-style fountain pen.
- You could also check out Bic’s range of pens made from recycled materials.
- Use eco-friendly pencils made from sustainably-sourced wood and separate erasers instead of mechanical pencils.
Extend their life
You can also minimize your need to recycle pens and markers by extending their life; if you look after them, you won’t need to throw them away so often!
Here are some useful tips to make your pens last longer:
- Store them upside down in a pen holder or coffee mug to prevent them from drying out
- Always keep the cap on markers or highlighters when you’re not using them
- Gently shake gel pens before using them
Breathe new life into pens that have stopped working:
- Ballpoint pens: Briefly heat with a lighter to loosen the ink.
- Felt-tip pens: Dip the tip in vinegar for a few seconds.
- Gel pens: Wipe the pen on a damp cloth or rub it on a rubber surface to remove any clumps.
- Cartridge pens: Remove the cartridge and blow compressed air inside to clear any clogged ink.
- All types of pens: Place the pen in a cup of hot water for a few moments.
Rather than having to recycle pens and markers, if you have a bunch of unused ones you can instead put them to good use by donating them to a worthy cause! Ask your local library, school, or kids charity if they’d like to take them off your hands.
You could also send your used pens to PenGuyArt.com, an artist who uses all kinds of writing instruments to create art. Check his website for the mailing address where you can send your old pens and markers to give them new life through these creative projects.
Another way to keep your old pens and markers out of the waste stream is to upcycle them into something new. Pens and markers are sturdy and often colorful, making them ideal to use for DIY and art projects.
Here’s some inspiration to get you started:
- Make a funky lampshade or chandelier
- Create a stick doll for a kid-friendly project
- Use them as stems for fake flowers like these
- Stake your seedlings and plants with them or use them as bulb markers
- Turn them into coffee stirrers
- Use them to make fishing lures
- DIY a funky flower vase like this or this one
If you’re still unsure how to recycle your old pens and markers, check out these answers to the most frequently asked questions on the topic.
Are pens and markers recyclable?
Yes, it’s possible to recycle pens and markers of all types (almost). However, they’re not typically accepted by municipal recycling programs or recycling centers, so you’ll probably need to use a mail-in program which usually involves a cost.
If you have unused writing instruments and art supplies, consider donating them to a local school, library or charity.
Can you recycle pencils?
Yes, pencils can be recycled. Most pencils are made from wood, graphite, metal ferrules, and rubber, all of which are recyclable materials.
Like pens and markers, pencils are not usually accepted by curbside recycling programs. Instead, you can recycle them through a mail-in program like TerraCycle.
How to recycle pens and markers: final thoughts
As we try to be kinder to the planet, it’s important to minimize the waste we produce and avoid as much as possible from ending up in landfill, where it can pollute the environment. This means paying attention to everything we throw away, from coffee filters to pens and markers.
If you don’t want your old pens and markers to end up polluting the soil or our waterways, you can either recycle them, donate them, or upcycle them. Better still, avoid using disposable pens in the first place by opting for sustainable alternatives.
If you’ve found this post on how to recycle pens and markers useful, take a look at our other articles and guides.