statistics and applied probability

national university of singapore

Make sure you save that pen!

An email comes from the Office of Environmental Sustainability, with a large picture in it (0.4Mb, in every inbox around the uni?!?):

Detailed instructions on how to save your pen, and thence the Earth!

Detailed instructions on how to save your pen, and thence the Earth!

So what’s it all about?

Save That Pen is a project initiated by 3 NUS students who wish to do something about the pervasive pen wastage culture observed in Singapore’s society. The project aims to reduce penwaste by collecting and refilling used pens.

My inner environmentalist thinks: Well done those students! But my inner scientist wonders: exactly how much damage to the environment is caused by the pervasive pen wastage deeply embedded in Singapore society?  (Or for that matter, by those little paper thingies that go on the inside cover of library books upon which the return day is stamped, or used to be stamped until the libraries decided to do their bit for the environment by banning them.)  A lot?  A little?  Surely we could just bury them all in the ground and it would have less impact than, say, upgrading our computers every few years?  Or leaving the doors on the ground floor of S16 open, with the aircon struggling furiously to bring the equator down to the regulation 25 degrees?

This chimes with a thought I had yesterday after Prof Lubek’s talk over in EPH: he discussed public health measures targeting Cambodian “beer girls” who double up as prostitutes and have high HIV rates.  But then he presented a graph at the end showing that “men” and “married women” have higher HIV rates in Cambodia! So, why focus on a (relatively) low risk group at the expense of high risk ones, unless it’s much cheaper? (It might be, he didn’t say.)

It’s good to do good, but could resources be put to better use than targeting low risk groups. Or saving pens rather than shutting doors?


  1. Think of it that way: it’s not about the actual pens – it’s consciousness raising. Every time you use a pen now, you will think about the environment and that will (hopefully) influence your over all behaviour. Closing the ground floor on S16 may save more energy now – but it doesn’t change anyone’s behaviour. So, in the long run, saving pens may be more effective through raising consciousness.

  2. Alex

    2010/04/01 at 11:14

    The Germans were at the vanguard of recycling in Europe. Everything got recycled, and there were rewards for so doing (the pfand when you take your bottle back, for instance). But last time I was there my friend S moaned at how annoying it was and how all the paper was just getting dumped after being set aside for recycling.

    I think we need to focus on important issues, like regular, unnecessary flying and eating meat, and less on pens and paper thingies in library books.

  3. Adrian Roellin

    2010/04/01 at 12:52

    Yes, we should focus on important issues. But you’ll get people to think about environment only by connecting it with concrete, daily aspects of live. Flying is not one of them. Eating meat is, but you won’t convert the majority of people to vegetarians (you should try to make them buy locally and sustainably produced products, instead, and not air-flown pork from Australia – unfortunately, Malaysia does not produce a lot of pork). Raising consciousness is an important step towards that. Ask the feminists: why would we bother now to use gender-neutral phrases? (more an issue in German than English, actually) Because it raises consciousness. No one is hurt when I use “he” instead of “He or she” or whatever politically correct term. But whenever I only say “he” now and mean actually “everyone”, I cannot avoid to think about gender-(in)equality.

  4. Alex

    2010/04/01 at 15:17

    Agreed about local produce. And yet despite Vishnu Milk being cheaper and readily available in Fairprice AND BEING LOCAL, everytime I go people are buying the Australian milk.

  5. Alex

    2010/04/05 at 09:15

    I just did the maths, and if this email went out to every student (30k) of the university, then that’s 12Gb of email space taken up by this one email alone! I wonder if most students delete this kind of thing, or let it sit in their email archives?

  6. Hey hey, came across this when googling for our project, Save That Pen @ NUS hehe.

    You know, you raise really valid questions in this blog post of yours and I love it. Shan’t attempt to defend my project in a blog post comment, but suffice to say that in an email, we can only try to communicate so much. No one’s gonna read an essay 😛

    We’ve definitely given thought to the impact ‘saving’ a pen (as opposed to other more ‘polluting’ objects) can make, but decided to go ahead with the project anyway for many other reasons. If somehow sometime we get to have a nice chat over coffee with each other, I’m sure we can have a good discussion about this 🙂

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