Still holding its own in the age of computers, PDAs, and instant messaging, the pencil is ranked the fourth most important tool of all time by Forbes.com. This grade-school basic and popular office staple seems harmless enough, until you consider how many pencils are made each year and the vast number of resources needed to produce them.
The eco-problems with pencils
Trees and other raw materials
Worldwide, about 14 billion pencils are produced annually, enough to circle the globe more than 62 times. America has its share of pencil pushers, who collectively spent about $900 million on them in 2002.
Pencils are traditionally made of a wood casing with a graphite and clay core (not lead at all) that forms the writing point. They're made from different kinds of wood in the US and abroad, including rainforest hardwoods. In the US, California incense-cedar is commonly used to make pencils. An average tree of this kind produces about 172,000 pencils, which equates to approximately 11,600 incense-cedar trees cut down to meet the annual US production of 2 billion pencils.
Pencil erasers were once predominately made of natural rubber from the rubber tree but now are increasingly manufactured from synthetic rubber blended with pumice or vinyl, a flexible plastic. Pencils with erasers also typically have a metal ring called a ferrule that holds the eraser to the pencil.
Like many products, pencils are increasingly imported from other countries, meaning a rise in fuel-intensive transport and greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, inexpensive Chinese pencil imports to the US rose to $30 million in 2002, tripling from 1996 to 2002. More than 50 percent of all pencils now come from China. Other countries besides China make pencils too, including Brazil, India, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Thailand, and the eco-concern is over rainforest wood used to make some of these pencils. One example is jelutong, a tropical rainforest tree from Southeast Asia used as raw material for pencils. The numbers of rainforest trees felled is unclear due to lack of disclosure by these companies.
Pencils that make a greener mark
Fortunately, there are a growing number of environmentally friendly pencil choices. Pencils whose wood is certified under the strict management procedures of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ensures wood taken from its forests is sustainably harvested. There are also a slew of pencils made from various recycled materials including newspapers, blue jeans, reclaimed wood, and out-of-circulation money. And although refillable mechanical pencils use plastic (petroleum-based) and/or metal in their manufacture, they don’t fell any trees and have the clear eco-advantage of being used over and over again, keeping them out of the waste stream.
- Pencil Revolution
- Pencils.com - The Story of Pencils: Technology and Tradition
- New York Times - Cedar for Lead Pencils 1907 article giving information about cedar used to make pencils in US and concern over its scarcity
- wiseGEEK - What is a Mechanical Pencil?
- Alibaba.com - Plastic pencils
- New American Dream - Pencils and Pens: Get the “write” stuff
- Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA) and School, Home & Office Products Association (SHOPA) Sept. 2003 Flash Report - US Writing Instruments Industry Report
- Green Seal - Choose Green Report: Office Supplies
- International Herald Tribune - No more pencils in high-tech world? Think again
- Discover Magazine - 20 Things You Didn’t Know About…Pencils