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I was considering to use the same device for writing from now on and I was considering two alternatives: a mechanical pencil or some kind of refillable pen.

Which of these two options is more sustainable? By sustainability here I mean which option causes less environmental footprint when producing the leads or the refills respectively.

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It is hard to say because there is such a wide variation in ink formulations. Also, no company is going to tell you what is in their ink, as they will consider that a trade secret. That being said, the only consumable part of a mechanical pencil is made entirely of graphite which is 100% Carbon and Clay. Go with the pencil!

Here is a "How it is made" video on Graphite pencil leads

Here is a video on ink making.

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There are two primary issues here, carbon and plastics.

I would expect carbon emissions to be higher for ink, but not significantly. Transport/logistics/retail would be similar for both products and likely has higher emissions than manufacturing.

Modern Ink usually includes micro plastics within the ink, and the packaging for a pen refill also has much more plastic. A fountain pen with traditional ink would avoid this issue obviously.

The half life of carbon is 27 years in the atmosphere, and we are actively dealing with the issue. Plastic on the other hand lasts much longer and is poorly understood (we don't really know the half life for responsibly disposed of plastic - it could be thousands of years).

Therefore, I'd argue pencils are more sustainable. Unless you use a fountain pen with traditional ink.

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  • Welcome to Sustainable Living! Thank you for your answer. Is it possible to add some references, for example about the half life of carbon? It would be even more great if you could find references that verify your expectations regarding the carbon emissions.
    – THelper
    Nov 27 '20 at 8:13
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Very few people use fountain pens today. It follows that few such pens are made. A good fountain pen lasts a long time if you take good care of it. If you have to choose between Parker and Mont Blanc, go with the former (and the one with the gold tips are rumored to last longer):

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You can get one on Amazon for under $200.

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    Could you elaborate on why this is more sustainable than other choices? My main cause of concern is the production of the ink used to refill them.
    – A. A.
    Jan 20 '16 at 9:22
  • @Adolfo: They don't make enough of it to even be part of the sustainable/unsustainable discourse. Billions upon billions of disposable pens are a strain on sustainability. Ink, not so much. Without ink, we might as well live in caves. You do want civilization to go on, don't you? The amount of food dye and laundry die they spend daily in your neck of the woods would keep every fountain pen on the planet filled for the next twenty years.
    – Ricky
    Jan 20 '16 at 9:30
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Don't worry about the energy/environmental aspect of such a small instrument. An ordinary pencil is made of wood, sustainable material. And graphite is recyclable. The US produces 130,000 tons of synthetic graphite annually, so it's not a big deal

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  • I think this is a pretty good answer, though it needs numbers. Compared to even minute changes in heating or transport use, I'd bet the difference between a lifetime's pencil use and a lifetime's pen use is effectively zero. It might even be outweighed by the energy used to store and serve the answers to this question.
    – aucuparia
    Dec 10 '20 at 20:30

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