Pencils are one of the oldest writing utensils, as versions of them made out of sticks and chalky substances were used even in prehistoric times for marking on surfaces.
The look and function of pencils have continued to evolve over time, leading to what we know as a pencil today.
Even when almost everything can be done on a computer, pencils are still used every day by almost everyone.
And because they are such a common, everyday item, we often don’t think about the impacts that they can have on the environment.
But we should, which leads us to wonder if pencils are eco-friendly?
Whether or not pencils are eco-friendly depends on the type of pencil and what you’re comparing it to.
That answer seems very vague, but it’s hard to answer in just one sentence.
That’s why in this article, we’ll take a closer look at what pencils are made of along with other aspects of them to determine how eco-friendly they are.
1. What Are Pencils Made Of?
Wooden pencils are made of several different materials, most of which are naturally derived.
The casing for the pencil is typically made from cedar, a softwood that is durable and doesn’t warp or splinter easily.
For some pencils, the wood is painted with non-toxic paint to help protect the wood and, in some cases, decorate it.
The inside of the pencil that is actually used for writing is made of graphite.
Graphite is a dark gray mineral made from carbon that is collected by mining, but it is often mixed with clay and chemicals to make it more durable.
The bit of metal at the end of the pencil that holds the eraser is known as a ferrule. It is made of aluminum since aluminum is abundant, lightweight, and can be shaped easily.
Finally, the eraser is made primarily out of rubber, which is derived from rubber trees that grow in tropical regions. Sometimes the rubber is mixed with pumice, another naturally-occurring mineral.
Mechanical pencils contain graphite in them along with rubber erasers. But instead of being encased in wood, the graphite is encased in plastic.
Colored pencils are very similar to wooden pencils, but they contain mostly colored clay instead of graphite. Most colored pencils do not have erasers either.
2. Are Pencils Eco-Friendly?
Wooden pencils are the most eco-friendly overall since they are made mostly from renewable resources. However, some aspects of them aren’t eco-friendly.
Although cutting down cedar trees to make pencils and other products can contribute to deforestation, a lot of wooden pencils today are made out of reforested wood, meaning that the trees used were replaced by new plants.
The rubber that is used for erasers is a renewable resource that comes from trees as well.
However, there are some issues with the graphite that is used in pencils. Graphite is a non-renewable resource that is extracted mostly via open-pit mining.
Open-pit mining is more efficient and safer than underground mining but it also causes habitat loss due to stripping vegetation from the area being mined. The lack of vegetation can also cause landslides.
Open-pit mining can also cause acid drainage into the soil and nearby streams and waterways, which can kill wildlife.
After being mined, the graphite still has to undergo processing to make it usable for pencils, so a lot of graphite used in pencils today is actually artificial graphite that is man-made.
Being able to make artificial graphite reduces the need for mining it. But, artificial graphite is made from crude oil by-products that are mixed with clay and other chemicals so it’s still not the most eco-friendly.
Even though the amount of graphite used in pencils is relatively small, graphite is perhaps the most important material used to make pencils since, without it, the pencil won’t work.
Neither graphite option is necessarily eco-friendly, but overall, wooden pencils as a whole are more eco-friendly than other writing utensils.
3. Are Mechanical or Wooden Pencils More Eco-Friendly?
Mechanical pencils are made primarily from plastic, which is created by the extraction and heavy processing of crude oil.
If you assume that the graphite used to make them is artificial as well, then all of the materials used to make mechanical pencils come from crude oil in some way, which is a non-renewable resource.
The one environmental benefit that mechanical pencils do have is that they can be reused over and over again by just replacing the graphite inside them.
However, many people don’t do this, opting instead to just throw away the whole pencil and replace it.
Wooden pencils can be used in their entirety, which reduces how much of them does get thrown away. But again, that assumes that you do continue to sharpen and reuse the pencil until you can’t any longer.
Overall, wooden pencils are still more friendly than mechanical pencils since most of the materials used to make them come from renewable sources.
4. Are Pencils Sustainable?
Wooden pencils are sustainable since most of what they are made of comes from renewable resources.
With that being said, the only thing that isn’t renewable about them is the graphite, regardless of whether it is natural or artificial graphite.
However, even if the graphite is artificial, it requires much less crude oil by-products to make it than it does to make other products.
Mechanical pencils are not sustainable as far as the materials they are made of, especially considering that it uses more crude oil to make them, which is a non-renewable resource.
However, assuming that you use a mechanical pencil over and over again and just replace the graphite in them, they can be sustainable in that aspect.
5. Are Pencils More Eco-Friendly Than Pens?
Both wooden and mechanical pencils tend to be more eco-friendly than pens.
Wooden pencils are made out of more sustainable materials. Most pens are made primarily of plastic with ink that is made of dyes and pigments suspended in oil.
Some pens do have ink that can be replaced, but most pens, especially cheaper ones, are designed to just be thrown away once the ink runs out.
Even though mechanical pencils are made mostly of plastic too, refilling them with graphite is more common and easier to do than replacing ink cartridges in pens.
6. Are Pencils Made With Lead?
Many people call the graphite used in pencils “lead.”
A common misconception about pencils is that they used to be made with lead but now graphite is used instead since lead is toxic.
The truth is that graphite and lead look very similar, and when graphite was first discovered in the 1500s, people couldn’t tell the difference between it and lead, so they just called it lead.
It wasn’t until the late 1700s that it was discovered that what they thought was lead was actually made up of carbon, a completely different element.
They called this material graphite, which is derived from the Greek word “graphein” meaning “to write.”
7. Are Pencils Biodegradable?
Most wooden pencils are made with biodegradable materials except for the metal ferrule on the end. However, that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily biodegrade quickly.
Being painted means that the pencils will take longer to biodegrade than if the pencils were not painted as paint helps to increase the durability of the wood.
Plus, cedar wood is naturally insect-resistant which takes one factor out of the equation when you look at the different biological factors that affect biodegradation.
However, wooden pencils are more biodegradable than mechanical pencils that are made from plastic, which won’t biodegrade at all.
8. Are Pencils Compostable?
Pencils are not compostable since they can take a long time to decompose.
However, pencil shavings from wooden pencils can be used in your compost since they are smaller and consist only of wood.
Pencil shavings won’t necessarily act as a natural fertilizer as other compostable materials will, but using them around your plants can help deter insects as well as help the soil retain more moisture.
9. Are Pencils Recyclable?
Neither wooden nor mechanical pencils can typically be recycled curbside since doing so effectively would involve separating the pencils into their individual components before recycling, which would be a time-consuming process.
However, BIC, one of the leaders in stationery, has partnered with Terracycle to make mechanical pencils, pens, and other plastic writing utensils and their packaging recyclable.
10. Are Pencils Reusable?
All pencils are technically reusable. You can continue to sharpen wooden pencils until you run out of graphite and wood to sharpen.
But, once you’ve sharpened a wooden pencil to that point, you’ll have to replace it with a new pencil.
Mechanical pencils are more reusable, provided that they still work. When you run out of graphite, you can just replace it with more instead of having to throw the whole pencil away.
Although man people don’t do that, it would make mechanical pencils a little more eco-friendly if they did because it would help to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills.
11. Are There Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Pencils?
When it comes to choosing between wooden and mechanical pencils, wooden pencils are the most eco-friendly option.
However, mechanical pencils can be more eco-friendly if they are made from recycled plastic and wooden pencils can be more eco-friendly if recycled or reclaimed wood is used to make them.
With that being said, there are no specific brands that specialize solely in eco-friendly pencils.
However, pencil manufacturers such as BIC and Ticonderoga do make some pencils that are more eco-friendly than their standard pencils, including ones that are made from recyclable materials.
Pencils are used all over the world and have been used for centuries. Even though they are relatively small compared to some of the other products that we use, we still need to consider their environmental impacts.
In general, wooden pencils are made mostly from sustainable and renewable materials, but there are limited ways that they can be disposed of.
Mechanical pencils are less eco-friendly since they are made from unsustainable and non-renewable materials, but they can be reused as long as you replace the graphite in them, which cuts down on waste.
There are also limited options out there as far as pencils that are more eco-friendly than either wooden or mechanical pencils.
That’s why the best thing you can do when it comes to using pencils in an eco-friendly way is to get as much use out of them as you possibly can, thus reducing how many you go through and how much waste is produced.