Paper or Plastic?
August 31, 2007 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Which is "greener"? Her metal & plastic mechanical pencils manufactured in Japan, or my Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils made in North America?

She says my wood pencils kill trees. I say we can plant more, and the industrial byproducts of pencil maufacture are wood shavings and whatever toxins are in the yellow paint, which I can take or leave (I think...I do like the yellow).

I say she's adding to the world's supply of cheap plastic toxic junk. She counters that I chew/lose/use up lots of pencils, while mechanical pencils can last for years. (I call shenanigans on that, noting that she loses hers all the time). She compares my cutting down rare and precious trees instead of using nonrenewable materials to make pencils is like running a car on whale oil and saying I can always make more whales.

Okay, MeFites.
That should get y'all started. Please chip in on our fight.
posted by penciltopper to Human Relations (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Doesn't really answer the question, but if you want to subvert the fight entirely you could start using Ticonderog's Enviro STIKS made from "approved timber from renewable managed forests. Lacquer-free finish, recyclable ferrule, and a pink environmentally degradable eraser."
posted by katemonster at 10:22 AM on August 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

Say "we can plant more" when they chop down the national forests...seriously though, I think in terms of the footprint left, your Ticonderoga (yay, good pencil!) will probably biodegrade, whereas the plastic will not. On the other hand, they probably treat the wood so that it's "easier to sharpen" or something ridiculous like that so maybe when it ends up in a landfill it will unleash some crazy toxins out there?
posted by SassHat at 10:22 AM on August 31, 2007

I vote for your pencils. They're made from bits of leftover wood or small trees, which are a renewable resource that produces oxygen. They are almost entirely biodegradable. They can be used and re-used by anyone with a knife to sharpen them, until they are a small stub, which produces very little trash. The mechanical pencil will never (for all intents and purposes) break down. It is not recyclable. In order for it to continue to function, one must buy leads which are also packaged in non-recyclable plastic. It's a useless implement to anyone that does not have leads.

I doubt the manufacture of either is especially green; however pencils made locally do not have the implied energy from transportation that pencils from overseas have.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:22 AM on August 31, 2007

(But I would weigh in on the side of wood pencils anyway, much as I love mechanicals. I doubt they're cutting down the rain forest to make your Ticonderogas.)
posted by katemonster at 10:23 AM on August 31, 2007

SassHat, pencils in the US are most often made from Incense Cedar. It does not splinter, and the compounds in it to prevent insects from chewing and pathogens from infecting are natural preservatives.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:24 AM on August 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Their website says that the #2 is made from reforested California Cedar trees. According to this site, the Cedar population has been growing due to modern forest fire management schemes. also the waste shavings are used to make fireplace logs. So in the end, I really don't think this is a rare tree like you said.
posted by mmascolino at 10:26 AM on August 31, 2007

Ugh, hit post too soon: many (if not all) California Incense Cedar forests are also managed on a sustained-yield basis, which means annually they take out less wood than they grow.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:28 AM on August 31, 2007

Why not play it safe and switch to one of these?
posted by The World Famous at 10:36 AM on August 31, 2007

Shipping one pencil halfway around the world has to be less green than cutting down a bunch of trees for a thousand pencils. But if you want to definitely one-up her then buy a vintage mechanical pencil made in the US. Re-use and recycle.
posted by JJ86 at 10:37 AM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

According to this, Dixon-Ticonderoga pencils are made from sustainably-harvested wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
posted by salvia at 10:42 AM on August 31, 2007

I also vote for the Ticonderogas (side question: why do these pencils have such a cult following?) but would also like to add that in the overall scheme of things, your choice of pencil has a pretty negligible impact on your overall environmental footprint.

Much more important are questions like how much energy you use heating your home, how much and what kind of car you drive, how often you fly, what you eat, etc. You'd probably be doing more good for the environment if you skipped the argument over whose pencil is greenest and spent the time inflating your tires to the proper pressure instead.
posted by contraption at 10:44 AM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

On preview, contraption and I are on the same wavelength. I was about to add that Ask Umbra at Grist repeatedly makes the point that we should focus our limited time and energy to the things with highest enviro-benefit. Here are her top four, top ten, and "now what else?" columns.
posted by salvia at 10:50 AM on August 31, 2007

Also, you guys are both using these pencils to write on paper, correct? How pages do you go through before you use up a whole pencil? Switching to a light-weight, 100% post-consumer paper will probably make more difference than choice of pencil as well.
posted by contraption at 10:54 AM on August 31, 2007

Ask her where the metal and oil in that mechanical pencil came from, and where those were smelted and refined into plastic. Likely not Japan. Add more oil and pollution for shipping the raw materials around.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:56 AM on August 31, 2007

How many pages, I mean
posted by contraption at 10:59 AM on August 31, 2007

Someday, they'll be mining landfills to recover the metal in her pencils, where yours will long since have turned into fresh pencils, a hundred times over.
posted by Malor at 11:12 AM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

What contraption said. The impact in either case is minimal, when compared to your transportation and climate control choices. It's not even worth considering—you are wasting precious brainpower and discipline that could be used to solve bigger environmental problems.
posted by grouse at 11:14 AM on August 31, 2007

The energy consumed to ask and answer this question here probably outweighs the impact of either choice.

Not if you factor in the likelihood that it's distracting a number of US workers from their jobs, presumably causing less stuff to be produced, sold, moved around etc. Taking that into account, I bet it's an overall win. But that has nothing to do with pencils.
posted by contraption at 11:16 AM on August 31, 2007 [4 favorites]

Just a note first to say that yes, things like this can got to the point of being absurd; no green flamewars here - I just wanted to win a bet. :)

@katemonster - Hey, I'll buy a box of EnviroSTIKs and see if I can live without the yellow. But will I miss that painty taste when I chew on em?

@contraption/salvia: we already have much of the big issues like heat and transportation worked out as far as we can, short of raising goats in our flat or creating our own bio-dome. Now we're working on the little stuff like consumables.

But I agree that people should turn off the AC and get a bike before they worry about stuff like pencils.
Please go do that first. I'll wait.

To all those who ask about the paper we're writing on as the bigger problem:
Use the trick we do - walk around your office and collect all the useless "TPS reports" that are all printed on one side only.
Flip them all over to the blank side and put them in the office copier. Take a blank piece of lined or graph paper and print that onto the blank backs of all those pages. Staple/bind as desired. Voila! instant free pads!
This follows the "reuse until useless, THEN recycle it" principle quite nicely. Between this and "save as PDF" on the computer, I can't remember the last time I bought paper.

This is working out so well that I might use next week's question to post about my cow-milk-in-glass-bottles vs. her soy milk in cardboard/plastic containers....KIDDING!
posted by penciltopper at 11:33 AM on August 31, 2007

Wood is a renewable source. Oil (where plastics come from) isnt. You win.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:56 AM on August 31, 2007

What about "wood pencils with a mechanical twist!"?
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 11:58 AM on August 31, 2007

I'd like to come out on the side of the mechanical pencil. The perceived waste of the mechanical pencil is due to her misuse of the mechanical pencil (e.g., losing it), and not due to the pencil per se. If she were to use it as it was intended (re-fill with leads once she's run out), then the mechanical pencil would come out ahead in its lifetime of use, versus the number of pencils that would be consumed by equal usage.

I've had mine for going on 18 years now, and that's A LOT of trees and metal that I haven't used. The #2 pencils have a metal band to hold the eraser in, and the sum of the aggregate metal parts I've thus far not used is smaller than the metal parts in my two mechanical pencils. I buy lead refills, and one package is equivalent to about 10 pencils, since there are 20 leads that are about half the length of a #2 pencil. And since most people don't use a pencil all the way to the last centimeter, as you would with a mechanical pencil, one pack of refills lasts me for longer than 10 pencils. I can also buy my refills in bulk, and I can also buy my refills in a recycle paper container.

But really?!? I can't be the only fan of the mechanical pencil!?!
posted by jujube at 12:09 PM on August 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

jujube: you're not- I actually use mechanical pencils almost exclusively because I have them for drafting. But they're metal, not plastic, and I don't lose them.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:14 PM on August 31, 2007

Wood is a renewable source. Oil (where plastics come from) isnt. You win.

This is wrong - oil is used to fell a tree, transport it, saw it into lumbar, and so on, all the way up to transporting the finished product to the store (and home).

Both types of pencil use oil. The difference is that the mechanical pencil uses a fixed amount, whereas the #2 requires an ongoing stream that, over the years exceeds that of the mechanical pencil.

BUT - if she is losing them rapidly and buying more, then perhaps she is not using each mechanical pencil long enough for the economy to kick in. How do you tell if she is using more oil energy than you? Both are mass-produced by machine, the cost of the non-renewables (including transport) is likely to be the biggest component of the baseline price. So I think a crude rule of thumb would be whoever spends the most on pencils over the course of ten years.

(Note the barb in the tail there - in today's economy it is also likely that whoever earns the most is the least green of the two of you, unless you are very very careful about how the money is spent).
posted by -harlequin- at 12:56 PM on August 31, 2007

Oh, don't get me wrong - me likey the consistent lead size of mechanicals, too.

If she was still using the metal-bodied pencil from the Cross set she got for graduating college (since lost, but still has the pen - Ha!) or a Rotring that she could give to her grandkids, I would concede the point.

But it's the half-dozen Pentel "clickies" I find around the house/car/trash that are going to win this argument.

As for sharpening, I own a knife already.

I'm even still using the stapler I swiped off the prinicpal's desk while he was suspending me for smoking in high school.

Someone can get on my ass later for ignoring the tragic economic and environmental plight of the exploited workers in the staple mines of Guatemala.

Oh, and yes, I do see the point of your "plate of beans". But overthinking things is what hippies do when they're sitting around conspicuously NOT watching TV, hoping someone will notice and give them a medal.
posted by penciltopper at 1:00 PM on August 31, 2007

Her mechanicals are shipped here in a shipping container from China, manufactured in a facility where emissions aren't controlled, by people who don't have any sort of OSHA or healthcare guidelines. They're formed in an extruder that's probably powered by coal and heated by coal, made with hydrocarbon byproducts of oil. Then they get to the US and are shipped around on trucks that idle all night for heating/cooling, moved by electric or propane powered forklifts into the store, dollied around by electric or pneumatic pallet jacks, and stocked by hand under fluorescent lights in a climate controlled area day in and day out until she bought them, at which point they were driven home in a gasoline powered vehicle to sit in your electric and gas powered home. The packaging went in the trash, and she has her 20 cent pencil. That's ignoring the actual process of packaging and placement of whatever the lead source is, probably graphite and probably of asian origin, who knows how it was isolated.

Your pencil came from, most likely, a US or canadian grown tree, which was logged with diesel powered cutters, is held together with industrial glues in an electric and gas powered facility. It was formed, sanded, whatever and then a slug of graphite was put in the middle before it was glued. Once packaged and ready for shipment, it had to go as far as cross-country before arriving at Target and being handled the same way as her pencils.

I'd say your pencils win, even if for no other reason that the shipping factor and the renewability of the materials it's made from.
posted by TomMelee at 1:23 PM on August 31, 2007

Her pencils are actually manufactured in Japan, which eliminates the "ooh, it's made in China" boogeyman.

I bet that factory is more highly regulated, clean, and efficient than wherever the pencils are made (could be US, Mexico, or those horrible sweatshops over the border in Canada we hear so much about- what's French for maquiladora, by the way?).

Before agreeing to let MeFi settle it, we agreed to call the actual manufacture of each a tie unless we learned something new about pencil manufacturing. But that's a valid point.
posted by penciltopper at 1:50 PM on August 31, 2007

Not really an answer to your bet, but... do track down a copy of Henry Petroski's "The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance." I have a copy (so far unread) and it looks frighteningly comprehensive.

Wikipedia says he's a professor at Duke; maybe he could settle your dispute? You have nothing to lose by sending him an email.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:12 PM on August 31, 2007

side question: why do these pencils have such a cult following?

When I was a kid, I figured a pencil is a pencil, but half in jest, tried comparing a bunch of different pencils that were sitting around. One pencil came out on top. I think I tried this more than once, and it was always the Ticonderoga. Must have been the SOFT graphite.

For other people, it could be fond school memories, where they handed them out; for others, the scent when you sharpen it. And I've learned from MetaFilter that a lot of people care about packaging, lettering, and graphic design, all of which are tasteful. If there can be a quintessential wood pencil, I guess this is it.

Somewhere I read an explanation of why pencils are usually yellow- they'd put out different colors, and the yellow ones consistently disappeared first. These days, Ticonderogas come in rainbow-colors - like the ones next to my computer monitor.
posted by AppleSeed at 3:14 PM on August 31, 2007

A co-worker and I both have memories of English teachers who fetishized the Dixon-Ticonderoga. Mine went so far as to make mobiles out of them, which he attached to hanging plant basket around his classroom. They're fine pencils, granted, and it's cool that they're still manufactured in the US. I just don't get the rabid devotion to a pencil brand some people seem to have.
posted by contraption at 3:27 PM on August 31, 2007

Get rid of that Ticonderoga junk and get some quality pencils:
California Republic - Palomino HB
if you want a harder lead that stays sharp forever I also like the Grip 2001 (Faber-Castell)
posted by jockc at 3:58 PM on August 31, 2007

Bringing the loss of pencils into the argument is a bit of a red herring. If the pencils are lost where others will find them in reasonable condition, they will certainly be used.

It is possible to refill "non-refillable" automatic pencils. Press where you normally would to advance the lead and slide a new lead into the pencil.

If you want to be green, write in your own blood. This will also make you really think about whether it is necessary to write something and use paper.
posted by yohko at 4:13 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, and we haven't considered what's being written! Are we to assume that your use of the graphite generates equally positive environmental outcomes?
posted by salvia at 4:24 PM on August 31, 2007

There's a Larry David script in this thread somewhere.

I vote wood. For an environmentalist to advocate the sale and use anything PLASTIC takes some serious chutzpah.

You're wasting trees by using pencils? Good lord. Do vegetarians realize they're destroying our precious plant life?
posted by rokusan at 9:28 PM on August 31, 2007

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