Tuesday, July 20, 2010

PaperMate Biodegradable Mechanical Pencil Review

Paper Mate Biodegradable Mechanical Pencil

papermate biodegradable pencil
A biodegradable mechanical pencil? Like many industries, the writing instruments industry is trying to get greener these days, and this pencil is part of Paper Mates efforts. Much of the pencil, but by no means all of it, is moulded from Mirel, a biodegradable plastic made from plant derived sugar feedstock, which is currently primarily corn sugar. Now just in case you are worried, the pencil should not deteriorate from contact with skin, moisture, etc. It needs a high level microbial environment like that found in soil to degrade. Paper Mate have a website about all of this.
sketch paper mate biodegradable mechanical pencil

Well, the first thing that strikes me about the Papermate Biodegrable mechanical pencil is that it’s dull. The main body is off-white and the grip, top section and pocket clip are a light green colour. The surface finish is matt. Well strictly speaking there is a hint of sheen, but not much. The off-white body section actually sort of looks like it could be made of something “eco” like compressed cotton dust or milk powder. I wasn’t sure if this uninspiring look was due to some limitations of the biodegradable plastic, but it appears not. The small Paper Mate double-heart logo does have a gloss surface finish, and the Mirel website implies the plastic can be coloured in a full spectrum of colours, so off-white and pale insipid green, dull matt surface finish, it’s all a deliberate choice …there’s no eye-candy here! Austere eco-green only.
paper mate biodegradable mechanical pencil

Another comment about the plastic body is that it seeemd to attract more than it's fair share of dirty marks, graphite powder, etc. Perhaps its just that the surface finish and colour made them show up more than usual?

The mechanical pencil is currently available in 0.5mm and 0.7mm versions. There is also an ink pen version as well.

Lets pick this pencil up. The rubber grip is round in cross section but with a contoured profile. At 11 – 12mm diameter it qualifies as a reasonably wide grip. It has a series of curving grooved lines moulded into it, which are primarily aesthetic rather than functional. The grip material is firm but reasonably grippy to the touch.

The lead sleeve is a short retractable cone so the pencil is pocket safe. When writing, if you allow the lead to wear down and the sleeve to start sliding back up it seems a fairly stiff sleeve and your writing will become noticeably lighter.
paper mate biodegradable mechanical pencil grip and tip

The lead advance mechanism is a standard push top ratchet system. Ten clicks will get you a whopping great 13mm of the 0.7mm lead. That’s a huge incremental advance. Actually it’s almost too much. If you do a double click you might end up snapping your lead because you have advanced too much.

The pocket clip is integrally moulded as part of the top section. For a moulded plastic pocket clip it is quite strong and functional, definitely better than most. Also up at the top end of the pencil is the eraser. It is housed beneath a clear transparent cap that has a very tight push fit onto the eraser mount. Sometimes I struggled to get the cap off the eraser! It is also basically impossible to put the eraser cap back on without activating the lead advance mechanism. At 7mm diameter and with 4mm of usable length as housed, the eraser is bigger than emergency use, but is not big enough for frequent heavy use. The compound is reasonably efficient at erasing, but it doesn’t challenge Staedtler Mars Plastic. You pull the eraser out to access the lead refill magazine which is quite a wide diameter so you can decent number of sticks of lead down there.
paper mate biodegradable mechanical pencil erasr and refill

Markings on the main body of the pencil are “Papermate (some sort of eco friendly leaf logo) 0.7mm”. The Paper Mate double heart logo is moulded into two opposite sides of the top section, and in small lettering at the base of the pocket clip is “China”.
paper mate biodegradable mechanical pencil markings

• Best Points – You've got to give them points for the biodegradability, but I know how hard it is to assess eco-friendly qualities through the whole product creation chain.
• Not So Good Points – It looks uninspiring.
• Price Range – Economy.
• Does this pencil make it into the Top 5? – No

Dimensions – Length 145mm, diameter 12mm at widest point of grip. Balance point about 75mm up from the tip.

This Paper Mate Biodegradable mechanical pencil was supplied by Euroffice, an office supplies specialist in the UK, in exchange for a review of the pencil and an acknowledgement.

Future and Related Articles

Hey, what’s that buried in Dave’s garden?


Michael J Corry said...

So which is more eco-friendly a pencil that you'll use for a while and then toss because its looks are gone and its innards are worn out but will disappear when buried in the soil - or the Yard-O-Led that lasted for generations and will still be in use for generations?
Serious question - should we be making disposables more disposable or should we reverse the trend and make fewer things that take longer to build but last?

Peter Hosey said...

It's worse than that, Sapphire. This isn't even a “disposable” pencil in the usual sense, like Papermate's Sharpwriter; this is a refillable pencil made to be thrown away. So, in my view, doubly pointless.

It would make more sense to start making Sharpwriters and other disposables out of this material than to make refillables out of it. Refillables should, as you say, be built to last.

(Also, I believe this is my first comment here. Hi!)

Anonymous said...

How are the refillables doubly pointless? They last longer than a sharpwriter while still being cheap to buy. Sharpwriters should be abolished forever not improved upon. Your right though, if every refillable were a yard-o-led, then the poor people would have no choice but to buy sharpwriters, but then another company would create cheap refillables and people would start buying those again and the yard-o-led sales would drop and refillables would enter the market again, ad infinitum...

Peter Hosey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Hosey said...

Anonymous: It's pointless to optimize a refillable's construction for disposal. That tells me that it's not going to last—that I will throw it away. If I wanted to throw away my pencil, I'd buy a throwaway pencil.

Question for Dave and for other readers: Have you had inexpensive plastic refillable pencils—not no-names and disposables, but Pentel e-Clic and similar pencils—break on you? Not just jam, but become completely unusable?

Anonymous said...

IMO, biodegradability is an added bonus. There is no proof yet that it's biodegradability affects it's longevity (barring it's longevity as an item in your garden). As time goes on companies and scientists will learn more and more things about these new materials used to make these pencils, and people will start burying items in the land instead of throwing them on top of the land, how is that a bad thing?

Shoplet said...

I have the biodegradable pen and i love it! It actually has a really nice grip and writes pretty well for a cheap pen. I was disappointed that the entire thing wasn't biodegradable but i guess it makes sense that certain parts can't be made that way

Peter Hosey said...

Anonymous: Fair point about no proof of reduced longevity.

Biodegradability in and of itself isn't a bad thing. I'd welcome it if this were a change Papermate (or Sanford more broadly) were making across all their pens and pencils. As it is, though, it seems just a gimmick. Why is this pencil biodegradable and not all their actual disposables? The only reason I can think of is that then those cheap disposables wouldn't be cheap anymore.
So, the pencils that would certainly benefit from being biodegradable aren't, and the one that is biodegradable isn't one that should need to be (it's refillable, so you shouldn't need to throw it out).

As an example of what I mean by “cheap”: Staples sells the Sharpwriter for 4 USD per dozen, while they sell this pencil for $5.49 per two-pack. Breaking that down, it's $2.75 per Papermate Biodegradable versus 33¢ per Sharpwriter.

And that means that this pencil will actually have next to no effect on pencils' contributions to landfills: Those who throw away boxfuls of cheap regular-plastic disposables will continue to do so, because this biodegradable pencil doesn't compete with them (at least, not any more than any other refillable).

Changing all their other pencils to this biodegradable plastic would be more helpful to the environment. It might also help lower the cost of Mirel through economies of scale (though it could also drive prices of source crops up—ah, the complexities of modern economics). But introducing a single new model as the only one made from this material rings hollow to me—it's a gimmick, nothing more.

Kiwi-d said...

I deliberately stayed away from any assessment of the merits or otherwise of the eco-credentials of this and other pencils. I think it's just too complex and/or beyond us with the limited information we have available.

Right back to square one though, Sapphire's comment, I am tempted to think that something like a YOL has a very small whole-of life-cycle eco-footprint that others would find hard to beat. Lasts for decades, silver has an intrinsic value to encourage recycling, etc. But that's just my gut opinion.

Time Waster said...

This pencil certainly has alot to say about the condition of the planet....

Pass this relic onto your grandkids =)

Michael J Corry said...

I only picked the YOL because it was the next post back.

I have a Parker that I've been using since 1969 and a rotring that goes back nearly as far. The rotring is a cheap refillable but still designed to last more than a couple of refills.

Maybe we collectors are the villains here - why does any of us need so many pencils? (My wife told me to say that. I'd like to know why any one with only two feet needs that many shoes.)

Henrik said...

This pencil is fun – the idea seems to be: when the pencil no longer works, you take it apart and bury the housing in the garden and the rest goes in the bin? It will make me feel sooo much more responsible. As Papermate states: “Every little bit helps”.
It would almost be treason not to do my bit.

But, the reverse idea, that the innards were biodegradable, and the housing not might be even better. Then I could keep my nice looking (ahem!) pencil and feel even more responsible. Just have to be careful not to loose it in the garden. :-)


Jambe said...

That it would be nice for Papermate to make their Sharpwriters biodegradable is irrelevant to whether this biodegradable mechanical pencil is a good idea. It IS a good idea. ANYTHING biodegradable disposable is better than one that isn't, and yes, these cheap plastic pencils ARE disposable, regardless of whether they're mechanical or not.

Seriously, you lot would sooner criticize this product for its higher margins and Green-image exploitation than praise its one actual merit. Perhaps you'd like to start up a corn plastic company and an instrument manufacturer and give it a shot yourself? It's a very new marketplace as-is; as the plastics become more common, the price will drop, and eventually it'll become economically feasible to make a whole line of disposables from them.

Regards the "bury it in your garden" comment: I don't think that'd work. Generally these biodegradable plastics require the high-heat environment of managed compost to break down quickly — if you buried it in the garden it would still be there year after year unless you turned in some manure or other microbe-rich degrading material with it.

Also: that thing's ugly as sin. While I can appreciate it being biodegradable I'd likely never buy one. I simply buy quality drawing pencils and keep them for years at a time.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeremy,

For almost a year now I have been searching for a Staedtler Micromatic 777 75. Yea, thats right, that 24k plated MP pencil. So far, almost everyone I have asked says that they're out of stock. Time and time again I have been met with frustration. I know that you have a lot of contacts and I was wondering if you could help me out here. Could you help me find this pencil?


Kiwi-d said...

Jambe - I believe your comment about requiring controlled breakdown environment is true of many biodegradable products, but not this particular one. The Paper Mate website states, "The biodegradable components in Paper Mate Biodegradable products are intended to be disposed of in soil or home compost", and "Majority of components biodegrade in soil or home compost in about a year." The images associated also mainly show soil rather than compost situations.

Michael J Corry said...

I've just realised. I already have loads of biodegradable pencils - all those wooden ones!

Henrik said...

Good point sapphire! If we are serious about it – we use wooden pencils. I guess it is a bit hard to take this seriously if you collect pencils – as the idea is “counter- collective” :-) we want to keep our pencils and do not want them to disintegrate over time.
What seems wrong here IMHO is the disposable concept.

Kiwi-d said...

No question about the biodegradability of wooden pencils (excl lead and paint) but many questions re their eco-credentials, just like with MP's.

Henrik said...

Indeed! I remember a longer discussion over at pencil talk long ago about a similar eco - pencil – concept. The impact of such things is really unpredictable – so I’ll just stick to, that I find it a gimmick – but there’s of course nothing wrong with biodegradability as such.

Vikram said...

@Peter Hosey:
Yes, I have had a Pentel Sharp become completely unusable-bu that was probably just a lemon. I have over a dozen other kinds of Pentel pencils and they all work beautifully.

Lexx said...

I actually dun see any problem in making cheap eco-friendly mechanical pencils, because that type are usually disposable. But that still produce high quality mechanical pencils that are built-to-last. This type of market cannot be affected because there are people who need this kind of quality such as for use in architecture or engineering or even to collect. There is also a limit on how environmentally friendly is usually acceptable these type of products, what you cannot do is generalize. Be ecologically is important, have quality products is also important, I see no problems with having the two without one harms another, but make sure that does not give more importance to one than another.

Lexx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lexx said...

I also apologize for my poor english. ;x

Kiwi-d said...

Thanks for your comments Lexx - don't be concerned about your English.

Asian treasure Hunt said...

I saw these pencils in this years tokyo stationery fair. They explained it very nicely.
very impressed.


PointFour said...

@Peter Hosey: I've fairly heavily used Pilot SuperGrip, still my favourite pencil - that's some comfession to make here - the shaker version with similar barrel, and a bottom-of-the-range Zebra that Zebra don't make any more, probably their equivalent of a Pentel Sharplet. Plastic pocket clips are *very* vulnerable, but in all cases the mechanism has worked well over repeated refillings and usage that wasn't always careful. Three cheers for cheap pencils!

@Sapphire: are you saying you're the Imelda Marcos of mechanical pencils???

Michael J Corry said...

There are others here with a better claim to that title.
My excuse is that you need a lot of different grades and sizes of lead for different papers and purposes.

PointFour said...

@Sapphire: That's a good excuse. I'll have to remember that one :)