The range of writing instruments is diverse. It ranges from A for active pens to B for ballpoints, F for fountain pens, G for gel pens, M for marker pens, P for permanent markers, R for rollerballs, T for technical pens, and W for whiteboard markers – to name just a few examples. Accessories include the various “writing materials”, i.e. refills and inks, as well as sharpeners, erasers and so on.
Writing utensils of all kinds are considered to be eco-friendly if they are also environmentally friendly. The term “eco-friendly” refers to the entire life cycle of the individual writing instrument: from the selection of raw materials to disposal via production and use. The combination of environmentally friendly materials plus long usability scores the highest points from an ecological point of view.
And what about the environmental friendliness of the writing instruments that are among those used most often for writing: pencils, fountain pens, and ballpoint pens?
A lead pencil is traditionally a pencil whose lead consists of a burnt graphite and clay mixture and is cased in wood. Alternatively, materials such as recycled paper1 are now also used as a casing. Wood is a renewable raw material. However, wood is not environmentally friendly per se. It can come from conventional and thus less environmentally friendly forestry as well as from ecological forestry. If wooden writing instruments such as Faber-Castell’s pine pencils bear the FSC seal (FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council), or if they are PEFC-certified like Staedtler’s lime wood pencil, then you can rest assured that the wood used for their manufacture is sustainable. However, it always depends on the origin of the eco-wood: a pencil made from sustainable wood in a distant foreign country has a worse eco-balance than one made from regional organic wood because of the distance it has travelled.
Often, the wood used for the pencil is also varnished. This additional manufacturing process and the material required for it worsen the eco-balance of the varnished pencil compared to one made of untreated wood – especially since the stub of the latter is also biodegradable.
For me, the fact that a pencil can be almost completely used up is one of the reasons to put pencils made of untreated eco-wood or recycled paper at the top of the league of eco-friendly writing instruments.
My tip: So that you can use pencil leads right down to the last meter, it is worthwhile buying a classic pencil extender.
Besides the material of the instrument (plastic, wood, metal or glass), the mechanism that fills the pen with ink is particularly decisive when assessing the life cycle of fountain pens. A cartridge filler that uses ink contained in disposable cartridges produces a lot of plastic waste over its service life. A piston filler or a converter filler is different: their ink tanks are integrated in the pen and are filled manually. They are considered to be reusable systems. The ink in a disposable fountain pen cartridge lasts for around 300 metres. In principle, a fountain pen can be used for a long time, and in some models broken nibs can even be replaced. When ranking eco-friendly writing instruments, I award them second place, which I think they should share with refillable mechanical pencils.
A ballpoint pen writes with viscous ink (known as ink paste) that dries quickly. It is contained in a tank in the pen and lasts for 1,000 to 10,000 metres. In the case of pens, refillable reusable systems are also more eco-friendly than disposable ones. And, as with fountain pens, environmental friendliness also depends on the material the instrument is made of: metal pens last longer than plastic ones. Mind you, ballpoint pens made of recycled materials and bio-plastics, some of which are even completely biodegradable, are now also available. That’s why I place ballpoint pens in third place.
My tip: When buying refills for ballpoint pens, look for the ISO 12757 specification, which guarantees a minimum refill quantity.
If you use pencils, you also need a sharpener. Products made of metal, wood, and bio-plastic or recycled plastic are more eco-friendly than those made of conventional plastic. Metal sharpeners have the longest life.
My tip: You should rely on high-quality sharpeners, because trying to sharpen your pencils with blunt blades just results in a lot of leads breaking and the unnecessary loss of material. You end up losing metres and metres of pencil!
Pencils also need erasers. After all, being able to rub things out is a huge advantage of using pencils. When it comes to erasers, you should look for products made of natural rubber or that are plastic-free (without PVC). According to Utopia, non-toxic erasers made of so-called thermoplastic are also okay.3
As for the ink required for fountain pens, NABU, Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, says that blue and black inks pose no problem, but other colours may contain toxic substances.4
Anyone for whom the issue of sustainability is writ large because it means a lot to them will also ask themselves how they can write sustainably using fountain pens, ballpoint pens, pencils and the like. Which writing implement scores high from an ecological point of view, and which should I do without for the sake of the environment? These are the questions I answer in this article.
The issue of which writing instrument is eco-friendly comes up when