Are mechanical pencils better for the environment than the regular wooden kind?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Sept. 2 2008 4:46 PM

Eco-Pencils

A Green Lantern back-to-school special.

As a new middle-school teacher, I'm facing a challenge I never thought about before: assigning a list of school supplies for my students. My colleagues tell me that there's a real downside to wooden pencils, since it gives students an excuse to get up every few minutes and use the pencil sharpener. But am I being environmentally irresponsible by asking parents to buy plastic mechanical pencils?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Lantern is sympathetic: It's hard enough evaluating the relative ecological impact of two products without having to also worry about the social lives of sixth-graders. But being a one-time sixth-grade boy himself, the Lantern is pretty sure that your students will find some excuse to get up from their desks anyway, so he'll stick to the environmental question at hand.

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Since both mechanical pencils and the regular kind contain similar "lead" (a combination of graphite and clay), the primary decision here comes down to whether you'd prefer your kids buy plastic or wood. As far as the Lantern can tell, most low-cost mechanical pencils are made of polystyrene or one of its relatives. Like other plastics, there are two major downsides to polystyrene: First, it takes quite a bit of petroleum to make, and second, it's not easy to get rid of after you're done with it. The best data available suggest that manufacturing 10 grams of polystyrene—a rough estimate for the plastic you might find in a standard mechanical pencil—would require about 22 grams of oil, between the petroleum that makes up the plastic and the energy needed to manufacture it. And the process of creating plastic is going to produce its own chemical waste. While the mechanical pencil has the advantage of being reusable—more on that in a moment—it's almost certainly going to end up in a landfill at the end of its life.

The biggest virtue of a wooden pencil is that, well, it's not made out of plastic. That means it takes less energy to produce the raw pencil material. Over time, the wooden pencil will eventually become a pile of shavings that can hypothetically be composted. The downside, of course, is that you'd typically have to cut down some trees to make wooden pencils. (To give some indication, a full-grown cedar might produce a few hundred thousand pencils, along with additional lumber that might be used for fencing.) But how damaging that is probably depends a great deal on where the wood comes from. Case in point: ForestEthics, a nonprofit focused on protecting California forests, came out with a report card last month that evaluated pencil companies on whether they use recycled material or wood that has been certified for practices that preserve endangered species and the long-term health of forests. (ForestChoice and the Greenline Paper Co.'s Eco-Writer came in for special praise.) Keep in mind that certified wood can be a mixed blessing: ForestChoice, for example, ships eco-friendly cedar from California all the way to Thailand, then manufactures pencils for sale back in the United States.

So, which is better? In an ideal world, where kids could be counted on to bring their school supplies home safely at the end of each day, a mechanical pencil would be the greener choice. After all, the lifespan of a wooden pencil is pretty short, while the mechanical one can be used indefinitely. But the Lantern's own middle-school experience suggests it's unwise to count on a 12-year-old to keep anything for more than a few hours. The realities of school life mean that wooden pencils are probably a better bet for all but the most responsible kids.

(For what it's worth, the Lantern votes for pencils over pens, too: Not only do pens require plastic, but they increase the need for more paper or Wite-Out.)

Of course, concern about these issues has created a new market for more eco-conscious school supplies: Now, a fourth-grader could arrive at back-to-school day with a notebook made out of banana paper, pencils that reuse the plastic from car headlights, and pens made out of recycled wood—all in a PVC-free backpack created from old tires. Still, the buzz around green pens and pencils often seems to miss the forest for the cedar trees, suggesting that you can consume your way to a more environmentally friendly pencil pouch. After all, it still takes energy, water, and chemicals to make a product out of recycled material, and the packaging for that product is usually sent off to a landfill. (The Lantern is tempted to start a nationwide boycott against any company that insists on selling its eco-friendly pens two at a time, in plastic and cardboard.)

Indeed, it may be wisest to skip the shopping spree and give kids a back-to-school lesson in how what they buy affects the environment. Buying eco-friendly pencils or recycled paper will make a much larger difference if Junior understands why using plastic is so bad or why one type of wood is better than another. It also helps kids learn that the easiest way to help the environment is to buy less stuff—an argument that's easier to make with mechanical pencils than Christmas toys. The Lantern doesn't envy the parent who tries to argue against a Hannah Montana notebook in the name of old-growth trees. But the greenest back-to-school product may be the one that never makes the list.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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