A Year of Pencils
February 7, 2008 2 Comments
It was around this time last year that I suddenly questioned my use of ballpoint pens. You know, those ubiquitous plastic-cased pens that–if they don’t jam–keep writing until they run out of ink and have to be thrown away. They were my usual type of writing implement at work and at home, and I carried a couple in my purse at all times. I do a fair amount of writing, much of it on scrap paper that’s getting a second use before it hits the recycling bin, but I was doing almost all of it with disposable ballpoints.
It’s not that I’d never considered their environmental impact. At various times I’d tried refillable ballpoints and fountain pens, but I couldn’t find one that worked reliably, and they’re so expensive that I couldn’t keep extra ones on hand to use when the first one jammed, nor could I gracefully accept having lost one. The amount of usefulness I could get out of a disposable ballpoint seemed to make up for its petroleum-based construction, pollution-generating manufacture, and nonbiodegradability. Refillable pens probably aren’t much better, once you take into account the manufacture of the refill cartridges and their excessive plastic packaging.
What I didn’t realize until last winter was that when I need a writing implement, I don’t necessarily need a pen. I guess I’d been brainwashed in elementary school: The big deal about fourth grade was that we were allowed to write in pen instead of pencil. It was seen as a badge of maturity and sophistication. By seventh grade, we were required to do all assignments except math in blue or black ink. This rule mostly held in college: You might see an art or architecture student taking notes with a pencil (an expensive, art-store pencil with no eraser) and most student did problem sets in pencil (mechanical pencil, because hardly any classrooms had pencil sharpeners) but in general, all writing done by hand was done with pens, mostly ballpoints. All the offices in which I’ve worked have provided disposable ballpoints. That’s how grownups write.
Meanwhile, I had a lot of pencils in my basement. In the late ’90s, Daniel and I discovered recycled denim pencils and were impressed by their superiority to wooden pencils: They hold a point better, they’re not splintery or rough, they’re far less likely to break under stress, and they’re made from trash instead of trees! We enthused about them to Daniel’s mother, and then she saw a sale and picked up a large quantity for us. I don’t recall how many we started with, but we still have over 100 of them now, after giving away several packs and using them for all our penciling needs for years.
The thing is, “our penciling needs” were very narrowly defined. I was using pencils only when I expected to need to erase a lot. Most of the time, I’d write with a pen, and if I made a mistake I’d cross it out. Sometimes it was annoying to see blotches of mistakes all over a page, but I was used to it.
Then one day I had brought home all of the denim pencils from my Girl Scout troop’s supply box to sharpen them (for the first time in six months–I’m telling you, they really hold a point!), and I was thinking about our huge stock of these pencils and how I might put them to use, and I suddenly realized: I could use them instead of pens! Not all the time, of course, because official documents need to be written in ink, but most of my daily writing is unofficial. There’s no reason my shopping list, my notes on variable names at work, or “dentist tomorrow 8:30!” need to be written in ink.
At that moment I decided to switch to denim pencils as my default writing tool. I swapped a pencil for the pen next to the shopping-list pad, put a pencil near the phone, took a few to work, put a couple in my purse, and put half a dozen in each of my pen jars.
And it’s been great! For the most part, nothing’s different until I make a mistake–and then I can erase it. I can write rapidly with either hand (I’m ambidextrous) without worrying about my hand smearing the letters. I don’t press as hard on a pencil as on a ballpoint, so I can write more without making my hand ache. It’s easy to tell when a pencil is almost done (getting too short to use), whereas a ballpoint with opaque case runs out of ink without warning at some crucial moment. I never have to scribble around trying to make a pencil work.
I do have to sharpen the pencils. I prefer the wall-mounted, crank-operated type of sharpener, and the best place in our house to install one was on the post at the bottom of the basement stairs. So I sit on a step and sharpen pencils. Once in a while I collect the dull pencils on my way downstairs to do laundry, and I sharpen a bunch of them all at once. Yeah, it’s a little bit of work, but it only takes a few minutes, and I suppose it’s healthy exercise. The shreds of denim or wood in the pencil sharpener can be composted. At work, I got tired of struggling to use the temperamental electric pencil sharpener, so I asked for and got a small handheld one for Christmas.
I still keep one pen in my purse for writing checks…but as I write this, I’m thinking how much easier balancing my checkbook would be if I wrote the balance in pencil! Instead of leaving a blank line under every transaction so that if I screw up the math I can scratch out the balance and write in the correct number, instead of winding up painting the entire balance column with correction fluid and propping it open to dry before I can go back for a third attempt, I could just erase! Ahhh. (Or I could get better at doing the arithmetic correctly in the first place. How it is that I can manage 42 million discrete data points at work, but balancing my checkbook is a source of great aggravation approximately one month out of three, is a great mystery.)
Anyway, it’s been a good year. Landfilling two pens instead of twelve didn’t make a very big improvement to the environment. But it’s a little improvement, and once again (as with handkerchiefs), changing my behavior for environmental reasons has turned out to improve my everyday life.