What happens when four undergraduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) come together to fight for the environment?
An initiative that reduces pen waste through a multi-step recycling effort, Save That Pen has been reducing Singapore’s carbon footprint, one pen at a time. We find out more from three of its founding members in this interview.
To start things off, can you briefly explain how Save That Pen as an initiative actually saves a pen?
Jie Hui: It’s pretty straightforward, conceptually. We collect unwanted pens that people dump into our recycling bins, and we sort them out into two main categories: pens that can be reused, and pens that inevitably become trash.
Hui Shan: Pens that can be reused are essentially pens that can be refilled. We work with generous brands like Zebra, Pilot and Uni-ball who sponsor us with refills, and together with our volunteers, we refurbish these pens.
How did the idea to start Save That Pen come about?
Hui Shan: It all started at NUS where Jie Hui, Yiteng and I were part of the scholars programme. One day, Jie Hui brought up the idea of raising funds for refills because there was so much pen waste, something which we all related to as students.
Jie Hui: We continued discussing the matter and realised that the problem wasn’t just about the refills perse; but, the entire mindset behind our disposable culture. We buy pens and we throw them away; we are not conscious about environmental sustainability at all.
Hui Shan: We slowly unpacked the idea and eventually kickstarted the project with a vision and mission in mind. In May 2009, Shi Han responded to our recruitment call and joined us as part of the core team.
When you launched the project back in 2010, you planted recycling bins at NUS to collect used pens. What was the reception like?
Shi Han: In the beginning, we worked with the Office of Environmental Sustainability at NUS. They helped us get permission to place the bins around campus. Back then, they also sent out weekly email blasts to the entire school, and that helped in publicising the bins.
Hui Shan: I think the reaction we got was quite mixed. A lot of students were filling up the bins, but NUS being an academic and intellectual space, people were also questioning why we wasted our time on pens. Some of them expressed how pens are so unimportant.
Jie Hui: There was this misconception that the project was just about collecting used stuff. A lot of education was involved, and we had to explain that it’s a lot more than that; it’s a commentary on how we live our lives in this consumable world.
Not too long after, you started placing recycling bins at the NTUC Centre. How were you able to expand the project beyond NUS?
Shi Han: That happened in 2011 after we graduated from NUS. I actually met an old secondary school friend who now works for Young NTUC (National Trades Union Congress), and she wanted to know more about Save That Pen.
Young NTUC was actually looking for young activists who wanted to do something either for the environment or in the performing arts. After learning more about Save That Pen, they eventually provided us with the seed funding to bring the project beyond NUS.
What prompted your decision to launch a starter kit?
Hui Shan: When we started working with corporates after graduating, we realised that they only wanted bins for their used pens, and then have us clear their bins for them on a regular basis. Collecting as many pens as possible is not the sole intention of the project.
Jie Hui: We wanted more groups to be self-organising. You learn more when you’re involved in every stage of the project, and that’s why we developed the starter kit for students. They can download the kit and find out how to launch the project at their own schools.
Hui Shan: It made more sense to target schools. Corporates look at us as a waste management company, but students can take ownership of the project and operationalise it. They can start it, run it, do the publicity around it, design the bin and customise it to their own culture.
Tell us more about how Save That Pen gives back to underprivileged students.
Hui Shan: Locally, we’ve been working with NTUC Fairprice. They run this programme where they collect old school textbooks and redistribute them to low-income families. For the past two years, we’ve been giving out refurbished pens through this avenue.
Shi Han: We also tag onto groups that are going overseas for educational projects. For example, if a group has plans of visiting a Third World country to help build a school library, we’ll give them our pens and have them distribute the pens to the needy students.
What do you do with pens that cannot be recycled?
Jie Hui: For a long time, we struggled with what we’re going to do with them. Because we can’t recycle them, we’re finding innovative ways to upcycle them.
We invite schools to our events where students help refill the reusable pens and turn trash pens into pen holders. The objective is to get students to think about why we produce and buy things that cannot be recycled.
Jie Hui, you work as a sustainability advisor. What does your job entail, and how has it shaped your thoughts about the work you do with Save That Pen?
Jie Hui: I approach companies like Pilot and make them believe that it’s in their best interest to design something recyclable. My challenge, however, lies in how sustainability is so out of reach, even for something as simple as a pen. It just shows how broken the system is.
What I have learnt is the value of ground work. If you’re stuck in your ivory tower talking about strategy all day long but don’t understand the pains and importance of executing a plan at ground level, forget about making change.
You do become disillusioned and depressed along the way, but I’m still committed to the challenge. I can only hope that out of the 500 youths I’ve spoken to about Save That Pen, at least five people listened and plan to make the environment their cause when they’re older.
Looking back upon your eight-year journey with Save That Pen, what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Hui Shan: As the years go by, we assume more work responsibilities. We’re not as carefree as we once were as students. It’s very difficult to keep up with everything that’s on our plate. We get more and more tired.
Shi Han: It takes a lot of effort to come together after work for discussions. But after we leave a meeting, we feel better and more energised than we were before. I think having a strong belief in what we’re doing keeps us going.
Jie Hui: Also, because we’re a nonprofit, we don’t make any money. We depend on the goodwill of a lot of organisations to stay afloat. That’s why losing our storage space at NUS last year was a logical nightmare for us.
It was a painful kick in the ass, but we’re fortunate to have partnered up with Nee Soon Community Centre for storage. This partnership has given us a new lease of life.
Any advice for others with big ambitions of saving the environment or impacting society in some positive way?
Shi Han: When you want to do something, you have to act on it. You can’t criticise the world and then just wait for change to happen. Even if you think you might fail, you have to try. Only then will you have a chance at success.
Jie Hui: Just go out there and do it, but disabuse yourself of any notion that you’re a saviour of the world; you are not the messiah. Understand your insignificance and then understand that your actions might impact someone, and that’s probably good enough.
Hui Shan: If you’re going to have this grand idea of changing the system – especially if you’re a young person – the idealism will eat you up over time, and you will lose motivation. It’s important to stay grounded.
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