Hey Mr. Green,
What is better for the environment, refillable pencils and pens, or the throwaway kind?
--Terri, Burnaby, British Columbia
The choice of pens and pencil isn’t the most urgent environmental question facing us and the planet, but it raises enough issues to be worthy of attention. Not the least of these issues is the difficulty in finding a definitive answer.
Non-throwaway mechanical pencils with the hardest, finest lead seem the obvious best choice. They last indefinitely, the hard fine lead wears down slowly, and they require less raw material than regular wood pencils that devolve to mere stubs that get tossed. Even when wood pencils write a breakthrough mathematical formula or a great novel, they all come to the same sad fate. Another advantage of mechanical pencils is that they use less graphite (aka lead), because sharpening a wooden pencil also shaves away some of this material to acquire a new point, whereas the mechanical model is "Eversharp"--as indicated by the brand name of a worthy pioneer in mechanical-pencil manufacturing.
The same logic applies to a ballpoint pen that uses fine-tipped refills instead of being thrown away when the ink.
But hold on. It’s not that simple, because not all pens and pencils are created equal, not in size or composition or sourcing of their many materials, which are mind-boggling in their variety. Everything hinges on these details. BIC, for example, the iconic purveyor of disposable writing instruments, actually makes throwaway pens and pencils that have been certified by France’s Ecolabel program. Both the BIC Orange fine-point pen with its tiny (0.8mm) point and its Evolution 650 pencil have won the ecolabel honor based on their lifespans (the Orange can write for 1.5 miles); their use of recycled materials, their light weight, and no less than 15 other environmental criteria, ranging from breakage resistance to eraser durability. Life cycle assessments that go into such detail are not available for more than a few writing products, and even if they were, considerable doubt would remain because different materials and processes have so many different impacts that they are difficult to compare.
Given this level of uncertainty, and the fact that my office is not fully paperless (and I'm not even sure the paperless office is all that miraculous anyhow), I default to mechanical pencils and fountain pens, on cultural grounds. Well-made objects that you use, cherishe, and maintain for years have an intrinsic value than can't be quantified, any more than you can quantify the spiritual worth of a poem or an art work. (Sometimes we environmentalists get too rigid and puritanical. Granted, a gigantic sterile modern warehouse might be more "sustainable" than the Taj Mahal or the Cathedral of Chartres, but do we really want to replace them?) Also, an excess of throwaway items seems to foster a throwaway culture that generates more than 240 million tons of municipal waste each year in the United States alone. In 1960, we dumped 2.68 pounds per person per day. By 2005, that figure jumped to 4.67 pounds. Unfortunately, our quality of life has not correspondingly increased.