A yellow No. 2 pencil – picturing one may provoke memories of math tests or notebook doodles from your grade school days. But have you ever considered the environmental impact of a simple wooden pencil?
The base materials used to make a pencil are simple enough: wood, graphite, rubber and aluminum. The wood used in most pencils is harvested from Incense-cedar forests, while the rubber in the eraser comes from rubber plantations in the tropics. While cedar and rubber trees are renewable resources, the rate and methods used to harvest them can cause deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and other environmental impacts.
Mining graphite and bauxite (which contains aluminum ore) from the Earth causes significant habitat destruction, air pollution, and soil contamination. If open-pit mining is used, the environmental impacts are even worse. The processes used to transform raw bauxite into aluminum also contribute to air pollution and global climate change.
These raw materials are shipped to sawmills and factories where they are transformed into the final product that ends up in your local office supply store. All of the steps in this production process use energy and resources, and produce waste and emissions that further burden the environment. The impacts of transporting these materials to factories and shipping the final product to retailers also need to be factored into the full environmental cost of a pencil.
Of course, the environmental impact of using a single No. 2 pencil is negligible. It wouldn’t even comprise the baby toe in your personal ecological footprint. So, there’s no need to get a guilty conscience next time you use one to solve a crossword puzzle.
The rub, however, is the sheer number of pencils consumed worldwide. Roughly 15-20 billion pencils are made each year in order to satisfy consumer demand. That’s a lot of wood, graphite, rubber and aluminum. Needless to say, the total bill to the planet is steep.
As the human population increases and as the world’s economies grow, so does our total appetite for consumer goods and their constituent materials. Here lies the problem. While most goods we consume are relatively benign individually, they can wreak havoc on the planet collectively. This is true for the pencil as it is for countless other material goods. For example, China alone uses approximately 80 billion disposable chopsticks per year, a habit that’s responsible for the destruction of approximately 20 million trees every year.
What can a consumer do to tackle this challenge? One option is to choose eco-friendly versions of the goods you consume. For example, you could buy a pencil made from recyclable materials or use a mechanical pencil. However, these options are not without environmental consequence. The use of recyclable material still requires energy and generates waste and emissions, while the processes to create the plastic in mechanical pencils use oil and produce emissions and chemical by-products. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether using a reusable mechanical pencil is more environmentally friendly than wooden pencils.
Another option is to look for alternative, non-material ways to satisfy your consumer demands. The premise is that people demand most material goods for the services they provide, not for the materials themselves (gold bars aside). Consumers don’t want the wood, graphite, rubber and aluminum in a pencil, they want the services those materials provide – things like communication, entertainment and self-expression.
Satisfying your consumer demands doesn’t have to mean more material consumption. If these desires can be better met in non-material ways, then both you and the planet can benefit. The other day, for instance, I did an online crossword puzzle for the first time. I was struck by how much easier and more enjoyable it was to change the words and cross-reference clues online compared to print. In short, I got more satisfaction without the need for paper and pencil.
This got me thinking – how else could I satisfy my consumer desires without the need for material consumption? And would doing so benefit me in other ways? So for a month, I challenged myself to do at least one activity a day that satisfies a specific consumer desire – entertainment – without consuming material goods.
For this challenge, I allowed myself to use pre-existing goods so long as their use did not incur any additional consumption. For example, going for a bike ride was okay because it didn’t require me to consume anything new (I already own a bike).
The Best Things in Life are Free
There’s no doubt that material-based consumption can be fun. We’ve all experienced the rush that comes with buying a new gadget, toy or outfit. However, this effect is often short-lived and can even be followed by a sense of regret after making a purchase, particularly if the item is expensive or extravagant.
In contrast, non-material sources of entertainment focus on acquiring experiences rather than stuff. For example, one of my activities this month was to attend a free concert; another was to take part in a local street fair; while another was to visit a waterfall. These experiences don’t need to break the bank. In fact, with the exception of a $5 donation to visit an art gallery, all my activities this month were free. It’s difficult to have buyer’s remorse when you haven’t spent a dime.
In addition, many of my activities this month involved music, art, culture and nature. Unlike more consumptive activities like shopping, these experiences can produce a deeper, more positive impact on your well-being and overall quality of life. The net effect is you are able to derive more lasting satisfaction from the money that you do spend. Simply put, you can be richer – both financially and in terms of quality of life – by accumulating experiences rather than material goods.
Want to see how much fun you can have without relying on the crutch of material consumption? Spend an afternoon playing with a kid. One day this month, I took my friend’s son on a walkabout in my neighbourhood. We didn’t have a set plan or destination. I simply told him our mission was to have an adventure and then tapped into the active imagination of a five-year old. During our two-hour trek, we explored alleyways, walked along an abandoned railway track, talked with a homeless person, ran through a water fountain, played tag in a playground, and then raced down the sidewalk in a junked stroller.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hectic routine of life. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child can help remind us that life is one big sandbox. Have fun with it. And despite what those glossy adverts tell us, fun doesn’t need to be synonymous with a highly material lifestyle.
Is Zero Footprint Realistic?
One day this month, I decided to spend a leisurely morning reading the newspaper at a local café. To stay true to the challenge, I made sure the paper was second-hand and returned it for others to read once I was finished. No net increase in material consumption, job done. Or was it?
I asked myself: is this activity truly void of material consumption? After all, I had consumed a coffee while enjoying the paper. And the coffee shop had to purchase the newspaper in the first place – if its customers didn’t read the papers, surely it wouldn’t offer them. So aren’t I complicit in this consumption? And what about all the other materials and fuels needed to operate the café? Does my time spent on the premise make me accountable for a (very small) portion of this consumption, as well as the associated impacts to the planet?
This got me thinking about all the bookstores, libraries, galleries and concert venues I visited this month. True, I did not directly consume any material goods during these visits, but the supporting facilities still require significant amounts of materials and energy to provide the experiences that I enjoyed. If you broaden the scope to consider all the material goods (and fuels) needed to provide these experiences, leaving no trace may be a stretch. Still, this challenge proved that fun doesn’t need to be synonymous with a highly material lifestyle.