Feature

Pens versus Pencils

G Magazine

In the eco-stakes, which is best to scribble with?

Desk with notepad and containers of pens and pencils

Battle of the writing instruments: which should you be reaching for to keep the planet happy?

Credit: Louise Lister

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People who have stationery cupboards at work may have noticed that pens and pencils are highly volatile - they evaporate rapidly.

The relatively short lifespan of disposable writing instruments is reflected in the production numbers, with 8.3 billion ballpoint pens and wood-cased pencils coming out of the US in 2006 alone.

With such huge production numbers, it's worthwhile looking for the more environmental choice.

The pen is said to be mightier than the sword, but how does it measure up to pencils in the battle to save our environment?

The ingredients

The bulk of a ballpoint pen is made from plastic, which is derived from oil.

Making 3,200 ballpoint pens uses the same amount of oil as driving a small car 100 km, so in the grand scheme of things, the oil consumed in production is not huge.

At the tip of the pen there is a small ball, usually made from tungsten carbide surrounded by a brass or steel casing.

The ink composition varies depending on the manufacturer, but the two main components are a dye and a solvent; water, alcohols or oils can be used as a solvent and the dye may be sourced from plants, mineral deposits or chemical synthesis.

The outer casing of a pencil is a simpler contraption: two pieces of soft wood held together with glue and covered in paint.

Inside is the "lead", which is not really lead but actually a mixture of clay and graphite - a mineral made from crystallised carbon.

China is by far the biggest producer of natural graphite and correspondingly they are big players in the worldwide pencil market.

Information about the wood sources used in pencil manufacturing in Asian countries is hard to come by, but some of the major American and European brands such as Faber-Castell source their wood from sustainable plantations.

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