Next time you sharpen a pencil, consider whether those shavings came from a sustainable source. French manufacturer BIC has considered this, and they are about to launch a line of pencils made from polystyrene, which they claim will be more environmentally friendly than using wood. This synthetic material replaces cedar as the 'wooden' part of the pencil, and it apparently looks and behaves the same as a traditional pencil, in that it can be sharpened as usual. What prompted their development is that since cedar trees are slow growing, they are not a sustainable source material for making such a short life-cycle product.
The polystyrene used for these pencils will come from old refrigerator linings - giving new use to materials embedded in products that have reached their end-of-life. One fridge will make 640 pencils and will avoid the use of wood incurred via traditional pencil manufacturing. According to BIC's British polystyrene supplier, Axion, 2,300 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions will also be avoided. Finding second life for polystyrene (which incidentally is not interchangeable with Styrofoam - a brand name of the Dow Chemical company) is good news, as it does not naturally biodegrade. Using it for pencils then, appears to have multiple benefits - but is there a catch?
Maybe - in terms of how else the material could be used. A little research on these pencils finds that the type of Polystyrene used is Axpoly PS01, (See page 6 of this pdf file as to how it's made). The manufacturer details that PS01 does indeed come from post consumer fridge liner plastics, and that it can be used in place of virgin materials for various thermoforming and moulding operations. So really, the suitability for use in pencils boils down to whether this post consumer material could be better employed in other longer lasting applications. After all, polystyrene in these pencils will never again be recovered material. Another question I have is over the claims made on the CO2 emissions saved. While it sounds great, I suspect the figure quoted is the CO2 saved by using recycled materials over virgin polystyrene - not as compared with using wood. Is this a case of misleading carbon emissions accounting?
Finally, perhaps a better evaluation of the environmental benefits would be to compare the credentials of BIC's synthetic pencil with traditional wooden pencils that have been sourced from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests. Such pencils do exist. If the wood came from sustainable forests, would it not be better than using a non biodegradable material in their manufacture? If so, then the reclaimed polystyrene - which is great to have - might be better built into something else more valuable and durable, and be kept out of landfill a little longer.
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.