The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
August 29, 2008

E+Co pencils not so eco, actually.

I’ve become an honorary member of the Green Moms monthly blog carnival, which was great last month when the topic was global warming and I had to learn all about how waste is related to climate change. This month, however, the topic is “Back To School,” and I almost decided to bow out. I don’t have kids. I don’t go to school. And every other post I receive in my email box lately has something to do with the topic, so I felt I had nothing to contribute.

Nothing, that is, until I went shopping at Long’s with my friend Axelle on Friday, after taking Hobble to get her stitches out. (We put her cat box in the cart and let her ride through the store with us!) For some reason we found ourselves browsing in the school supplies aisle. Axelle was looking for… um… I can’t remember. And I was marveling at all the plastic plastic plastic. Until I spied a plain cardboard box of pencils called E+Co by Pentech. The box didn’t even have a plastic window. Hmmm… Could this be something I could recommend for “back to school?”

Check out the label on the box:


“Pencils made from 100% Recycled Bags. Packaging made from 100% Recycled Board. Ferrules are 100% recyclable. 100% Post Consumer Content Recycled.”

And now let’s ask the necessary questions about each of these statements.

1) Pencils made from 100% Recycled Bags. What kind of bags? Paper? Plastic?

2) Packaging made from 100% Recycled Board. What kind of board? What does that even mean?

3) Ferrules [the metal part that holds the eraser] are 100% Recyclable. In whose universe? Yes, they’re metal and could theoretically be recycled. But do you really think those tiny things are going to be sorted out from all the other recycling waste at the MRF? And yes, I did have to Google “ferrule.”

4) 100% Post Consumer Content Recycled. Which part? The box? The graphite? The outside of the pencil?

These pencils are made by Pentech, a subsidiary of JAKKS Pacific. So I decided to check them out online to find out more details. Unfortunately, neither the Pentech site nor the JAKKS site listed these pencils anywhere. So I had to wait until the next day to call the Customer Service number.

I spoke to Jonathan, who at first didn’t even believe the pencils I described were made by his company. I had to insist that I got the company’s number from the back of the box and that in fact it did say “Pentech” on it. Finally, after I read him the product code, he was able to look up the pencils but actually had very little information. So he took my number to find out and call back.

And call back he did. Turns out, the pencils are made from used plastic bags (which is what I was afraid of) and the erasers are latex-free, which means they’re also made from plastic.

So what’s wrong with a pencil made from recycled plastic bags? We need to use those bags for something right? Except that pencils get sharpened. Normal pencils will leave behind wood shavings that can be composted. These pencils will leave behind plastic dust that will linger in the environment, just like the tiny pieces of plastic floating in the gyre or the plastic microbeads we’re flushing down our drains these days.

It’s great when companies see a waste problem and try to find ways to recycle that waste. But in this case, I don’t think they’ve considered all the ramifications of their project. I like the plastic-free recycled cardboard box. Just not the product inside. I’ll be returning this item to Long’s the next time Arya and I feel like going shopping.

So what pencils should we use? I don’t have the definitive answer, but I’ll bet a bunch of the green moms in the Back to School carnival will have some great ideas. Check it out. It will be hosted at Mamabird’s Surely You Nest blog on Monday, September 7.

32 comments
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Slywy
Slywy

I really like the O'Bon pencils (www.myobon.com) made from rolled newspapers. They write and sharpen well, too.

The Not Quite Crunchy Parent
The Not Quite Crunchy Parent

I read your post- (great as usual) and jumped over to my email account to write my contact at Jakks Pacific.I'm hoping she can add some additional information to the discussion!

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kale for sale

Shall we call them fake plastic pencils? Invisible gold sticky stars to you for the inspiration to look beyond labels.

Eva
Eva

From Slate today"Eco-PencilsA Green Lantern back-to-school special.By Jacob LeibenluftAs a new middle-school teacher, I'm facing a challenge I never thoughtabout before: assigning a list of school supplies for my students. My colleagues tell me that there's a real downside to wooden pencils, since it gives students an excuse to get up every few minutes and use the pencil sharpener. But am I being environmentally irresponsible by asking parents to buy plastic mechanical pencils?"http://www.slate.com/id/2199138/?from=rss

Anonymous
Anonymous

Once again - great sleuthing Beth! I like you am a detail oriented person and I often think about these issues - but get frustrated by the "well it's recycled" attitude. A full life cycle assessment is truly necessary to understand impacts of products...I was about to throw the term "greenwashing" on this product, but upon further consideration hesitate to use that term. I think this may be one of those situations where the manufacturer truly think they are making a "better" product because they havent considered the full life-cycle. This actual reminds me of another type of pencil that has bugged me for a while. There are these things called "smencils" that are sold all over the place. They are made from 100% recycled newspaper and advertised as a recycled product. They are smelly (hence the name) and individually packaged in PLASTIC tubes. ughh!!! so frustrating! each pencil has such a huge impact with it's own plastic tube - yet they are trying to be an "eco" product!

Green Bean
Green Bean

Nice post, Beth. I think we are in a period of trial and error (much like my vegetable gardening, but that's another story). I love that businesses are trying to be greener and solve waste problems. It is a learning curve that we, as an entire society, will need to solve together. This is the first step and I'm glad they've taken in.

Cat Chapin-Bishop
Cat Chapin-Bishop

Somewhat off-topic--I not only love your blog, but feel that it is changing the way I live. I've nominated you for a blog award, in the hopes that the readers of my own blog will read yours and be changed as well.To find out more about the "I Love Your Blog" award, and to collect the graphic if you'd like to post it, drop by Quaker Pagan Reflections, to the entry, Too Much Love?And please keep blogging! Your writing means a lot to me.

MamaBird
MamaBird

Wow, great research, Beth! I love the idea of greenwashing guerilla stickers, btw. I've heard of Smencils -- which could be an option for colored pencils -- but at the moment, we are just using up the 17,000 pencils we have. Maybe someone will address this during the carnival! I'm glad you realize we've adopted ya. ;)

Mary Hunt
Mary Hunt

Beth - great job on putting together a Life Cycle Assessment on the pencil. LCA's will be required for all products soon enough, you're just ahead of the game.As for little pieces of plastic not hurting anyone, that's what the floating plastic in the Pacific that's the size of Texas is comprised of. Plastic is forever....

Abbie
Abbie

Thanks for the post!!!I just got a couple of boxes of pencils for my classroom. I have to say that kids are dumbfounded that I do not have an electric pencil sharpener. I have an old metal one on my wall that I had the custodians install in my new school.(I teach high school environmental science and the kids always laugh when I say "We don't need fossil fuels to sharpen our pencils!!!")

Robj98168
Robj98168

Greenwashing at it's finest! Thanks Pentech. Sheesh

Anarres Natural Health
Anarres Natural Health

Ah writing implements - a new frontier!Yesterday, my daughter came home with her "back-to-school" supplies. 4 plastic covers I will reuse for preserving papers, 7, yes, 7 plastic shopping bags, 4 permanently useless PS package covers etcetera etcetera. Nauseating. Plus, she threw out the plastic bags!!! We actually need plastic shopping bags to bag our garbage because we don't - we I don't - get new plastic bags. Arggh.As for greenwashing, I find that very few people except yourself dig deeper when they see an eco claim. Little plastic bits lasting 575 years, toxifying and choking wildlife along the way, is beyond most people. That's what I think we need to drum into people's heads.I want to create a sticker that I can put on greenwashed products and put them on the products.My daughter is really into her mechanical pencils, and I can vouch for the little plastic cases packaged themselves in PS and cardboard being a huge waste. I had some cardboard and wood graphite refill cases, but they were salvaged from the 1960s!Love & RRRevolution, Tracey

doug.farquhar
doug.farquhar

I read your piece on pencils this morning and thought I would tell you about O’BON – they are located in South San Francisco and they make pencils – amongst other things – entirely out of recycled newspaper. They are a good little product. They are made in China which certainly is not ideal, but when you consider that most pencils come from outside our borders anyhow, it is somewhat of a wash. http://www.buygreen.com/index.asp?txtSearch=pencil&PageAction=PRODSEARCHhttp://www.myobon.com/

ruchi aka arduous
ruchi aka arduous

Oh my God, Beth. I would have never thought of that!!!I don't buy pencils or pens because I have accumulated a huge stash of them over the years. I anticipate it will be several years before I have to buy anything.

Fake Plastic Fish
Fake Plastic Fish

Hi Nimic. Generally, I agree with you about reusable vs. disposable, but in this case, the leads in mechanical pencils all come in little plastic disposable containers that I'd rather not purchase. (If you know of mechanical pencil leads that don't come packaged in plastic, PLEASE let me know!)I do use a refillable fountain pen that I fill directly from a bottle of ink with no disposable cartridge.And there are pencils made from recycled paper that are preferable to a pencil made from recycled plastic.

Nimic
Nimic

Use a high quality aluminum mechanical pencil. They'll last a lifetime if properly cared for.I don't understand why anyone buys anything disposable, when there is a reusable alternative.Reusable writing utensils have been available for centuries.

Diane MacEachern
Diane MacEachern

Two points: Your research shows exactly why we need products to have their entire life cycle sustainably certified by someone like the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability. Most consumers wouldn't think about the eco impact caused by sharpening a pencil made from plastic bags, but MTS' SMaRT standards would have caught that.Second, Forest Ethics (www.forestethics.org) has just published a guide to pencils. They recommend pencils made from post-consumer recycled wood, rather than virgin forests or pre-consumer wood. They specifically recommend the pencils made by Forest Choice and Greenline Paper Company.

Jennifer Taggart
Jennifer Taggart

Beth - As always, you are amazing. Even though I am a label reader, I would have assumed that these were great - specific details on the environmental claims, etc. Aaargh . . . I think I bought something similar . . . I'll have to go check it out and see how green it really is.Great job. And you are a mom - a mom of Earth.JenniferSmart Mamas Do It All Naturallywww.thesmartmama.com

Tanya
Tanya

Beth you are amazing! You should have been a detective! :)

Mother Earth
Mother Earth

Great example of an inquiry - so many of us have no idea how things are made.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Last year I came across pencils and colored pencils made from recycled newspaper tightly rolled around the graphite core and covered in some sort of glue-y stuff called TranslationsPencils. I don't think their containers have the same benefits (there's a plastic window and it is not mentioned on the package if it is made from recycled materials of any sort). The pencils don't have erasers. They aren't perfect either, but it's another idea.

Bobbi
Bobbi

Wow - just like with everything else, you have to understand what the label is saying. I would have taken for granted that the pencils were good for the environment, because that's what the box implies. Thank you for shedding a new light on the questions I should be asking companies. Great post!