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.

Making it

The production of both pens and pencils requires heat-moulding. This means energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission, but the environmental impact is relatively low when compared to the sourcing of raw materials.

In a life cycle analysis of ballpoint pens by manufacturer Bic, it was estimated that 90 per cent of the environmental impact comes from getting the raw materials compared to only nine per cent from production and distribution.

The similar size and weight of pens and pencils means that the amount of fuel and energy used in transport and distribution is fairly even.

Lifespan and waste

The lifespan of a pencil is much longer than a pen.

Your average HB pencil can draw a line for 56 km, while a ballpoint pen can only manage two to three kilometres.

Once pens run out they usually end up in landfill because they are not viable for most recycling operations.

Old pencils also end up at the tip, but the wooden part is biodegradable.

This means pens leave you with higher volumes of landfill.

The waste issues associated with the paint from pencils and the ink from pens will vary depending on manufacturer.

Given people's tendency to chew on the end of their writing instrument, there are many regulatory bodies that keep toxicity levels of both products to a minimum.

The verdict

Pencils come out on top, mainly because they last a lot longer.

For every pencil you finish, it would take at least 18 pens to write the same amount.

Plus the bulk of a pencil is biodegradable, which tips the scales even further in their favour.

Despite this, it might be a good idea to keep a pen handy when it comes time to draft your will or write a cheque. You can ease your conscience by looking for pens made from recycled or biodegradable material, and those able to be refilled.