Which type of pencil is the most sustainable one?

  1. Wooden pencil

  2. Automatic (propelling) pencil/Clutch pencil

The types I'm referring to:

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I've read related questions about comparing pens and pencils:

What is more sustainable, using a mechanical pencil or a pen?

Are “eco-friendly” pens and pencils actually more sustainable than the conventional models?

but I'm interested in comparing the environmental footprints of these 2.

I am aware of the complexity of such an analysis (which resources are renewable, energy and transport for non-reusable parts and potential waste production) and while I'm interested in as a comprehensive answer as possible, any steps of the solution are welcome.

  • 2
    It's going to depend on your definition of sustainable. Although the wooden pencil involves disposing of more material, it's a renewable, compostable material (the "lead" is clay+graphite and fine to add to soil) while the plastic is probably oil-derived. I have seen plant-based-plastic pen bodies but they're rare.
    – Chris H
    Feb 18, 2016 at 8:12
  • 2
    The automatic pencil & the clutch pencil are basically the same thing; they're both made from metal & plastic & they use the same type of lead. The only difference between them is the mechanics for moving the lead. It's like comparing a car with and automatic gear box with one with a manual gear box. Your question comes down to "what is more sustainable, a mechanical pencil made of plastic & metal or a wooden pencil?"
    – Fred
    Feb 18, 2016 at 15:17
  • @ChrisH I've never heard of, let alone seen a plant-based plastic pen/automatic pencil, that's a very interesting piece of information. I'd define 'sustainable' as 'which type of pencil should I use to have the least environmental impact' but any viewpoint of sustainability is welcome in an answer.
    – Lucky
    Feb 19, 2016 at 18:38
  • @Lucky they were a bit of a gimmick in the early days of plant-based plastics. I haven't seen them for a while. 'Environmental impact' is hard to pin down. For example: how do you add energy use to water use? I guess that the wooden pencil will score the best.
    – Chris H
    Feb 19, 2016 at 18:57

1 Answer 1


When faced with a bunch of different vague tradeoffs like this go with a 'which has the lowest total cost of ownership?

Starting at that, then try to internalize the issues involved in making is sustainable.

Wooden pencil: Made of cedar. Cedar logging in North America has some stringent requirements for erosion prevention, and regeneration. Graphite and clay are not resources in short supply. No costs to internalize.

Plastic mechanical pencil: Probably made of styrene. Styrene monomer is made from natural gas. Styrene is also an easily recycled plastic.

In addition the cheap plastic ones typically come with several chunks of 'lead', and can be refilled. The usual limitation I find is that they get lost before they break down. Because of their clip, and shorter length, I don't lose them as fast. Often a 12 pack at staples is cheaper than a similar box of wooden pencils.

Finally some value needs to be given to not having to sharpen them.

Overall: I would go with the mechanical pencil. But you realize that you have been more unsustainable by driving your car to the end of the driveway than any reasonable number of pencils you use in a year.

One last consideration. The mechanical pencils are more agile. All writing instruments have a flight reflex that kicks in at the sound of a phone ringing. If it can't run or hide, it has "pigment constipation" and will refuse to write. It may be that these are older, and sacrifice them so the others can get away.

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