O’Bon: Say “No” to Wood Pencils

Yesterday’s San Francisco State University Xpress had an article on O’Bon. According to the article, the company is Malaysian headquartered, with sales in Asia and North America. They make “environmentally friendly” products such as pencils cased in recycled newspapers.

They operate several websites:

A blog, where they mention, among other things, that their pencils have met U.S. “dumping” definitions, and that “Giving our money to wood pencil manufacturers is painful for us.”

A product website, which says “Say “No” to Wood Pencils”.

And another product website.

I didn’t notice any citations or research in their many claims. One example: they claim their pencils last three times as long as a regular pencil.

On the wood-positive side, Woodchuck, a respected pencil industry leader, has written about responsible forestry and the pencil industry.

O’Bon and similar companies clearly have some traction, and pencil manufacturers should take note.

I have to admit one thing. There is a major difference with the various woodless and “environmentally friendly” pencils that regularly appear, but which are low in quality – O’Bon’s pencils are usable if not good.

O'Bon pencil

The O’Bon pencil weighs about 50% more than most modern pencils. It is made in China, and claims a ‘2B’ lead. Sharpening produces a huge single plume of compressed paper residue. Though very intriguing looking, the huge plume reduces the ability to be sharpened in sharpeners with enclosed canisters.

O'Bon pencil

The graphite core is strikingly black, shiny, and solid. The lead’s luminescence is different than that of a standard woodcase pencil.

Woodchuck explained this as a graphite-plastic composite material. I liken it in some ways to the lead of a mechanical pencil.

The negative for some (apart from the casing) will be the shinier than usual markings. But overall, I think most will find it good-enough, if not actually good.

Now as to their statements and claims about woodcase pencils – what do you think?

43 Replies to “O’Bon: Say “No” to Wood Pencils”

  1. I thought that the point of pencils like the Forest Choice and other such pencils was that they used well-managed forests so as to avoid overdeforestation. (If that’s even a word.) That, and I find it hard to give up a woodcase pencil, especially since I just got a batch of Musgrave HB’s.

  2. For me, there’s nothing like the smell of a freshly sharpened cedar pencil. If I want to reduce waste, I can use a leadholder, mechanical pencil … or a fountain pen.

  3. Interesting pencil but I’m not sure how much of an impact it makes on being “environmentally friendly”. Their claim to being “green” is that the pencil is made of recycled newspaper instead of solid wood. Well, isn’t newspaper still made of wood? I mean, someone had to chop down a tree to make the newspaper. From what I know of the pulp and paper industry, manufacturing paper is not really an eco-friendly process. There’s a lot of high power machinery like motors, pumps, grinders, etc processing the wood fibers to make paper and there’s also a lot of waste generated (on top of the pollution from the power plants powering the equipment).

    So the newspaper is collected and then further processed and refined to make it usable in a pencil. On the one hand, they gave the original wood fibers some extra mileage but on the other hand it takes a lot of energy to give that mileage. I believe that there is a reason that these pencils are made in Asia and not in the US or Europe. US and EU environmental laws would make this pencil extremely expensive if not flat out impossible to build. Asia has very loose laws which gives them freedom to use all kinds of low cost processes. I would be interested in knowing how much waste O’BONs process generates.

    Wood is natural, decomposes, and is renewable. I don’t see how a wooden pencil is not a “green” product. It seems to be the straightest and shortest path from raw material to finished product. Maybe I am missing something? It seems to me that there is a huge cultural push to be environmentally responsible but very little logic or knowledge about how to pursue it.

    I applaud the ingenuity of this pencil but I don’t think there’s a bit more hype than reality behind it. If people really want to be eco-friendly then they should stop using so much paper – like newspaper! Read the news on the web. Stop making so many printouts. Yadda yadda yadda… how much wood does the pencil industry really use compared to all other uses of wood fiber?

    — Boris

  4. Whoops! I just reread my comment from yesterday and I found a typo. In the last paragraph, first sentence, I meant to say that “I think there’s a bit more hype than reality behind it.” For some reason I added the word “don’t”. Sorry about that…

  5. Pencils are like language, which can be use for the very functional (shopping list, yelling at a truck driver who cuts you off in traffic), or for the very elevated (a marriage proposal, a Psalm, the Gettysburg address). A wooden pencil engages our senses, smell (aromatic cedar), sight, feel, and so with managed forests (as in Christmas trees), we need these small things to make our lives a little brighter. It’s a small reminder of things well made from natural products.

  6. Yikes! I’ve seen these O’Bon pretenders on the web and haven’t even been remotely tempted to buy them. What is O’Bon using in the cores, depleted uranium :>))) ? I also agree with the earlier comments which question how green this product really is. Sure O’Bon may reuse some paper pulp, but in my opinion, given the energy expended in the production of these beauties, at best the savings in energy is a wash. I am reminded many years ago of a NYT Sunday Mag story which called into question the greenness of newspaper recycling. Sorry, I am going to continue scribbling with my Palominos guilt-free. I am a believer in sustainable growth, but more than that, a pencilhead has just got to be free.

  7. Boris in particular makes some good points. Paper manufacturing, and then recycling is a dirty business. His point about reducing paper usage is a good one – the number of people at my work who basically print their emails to read and then file them, its just crazy.
    I’ve tried to do some reading and research on the environmetal friendliness or otherwise of woodcase pencils, mechanical pencils, recycled or not, etc and its really hard to sort it all out. Each side have compelling research proving their claims. Its all too hard.

  8. I really like this discussion and particularly the article and the comments from Boris. All make for an interesting read.
    Please know that the Chinese are the inventor of this process; therefore, this is the reason that the process is not yet in the US. Second, there are a lot of – I mean – a lot of not good recycled newspaper pencils being made in China. O’BON is the biggest and the only one with both ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certification. Our factory is clean and extremely mindful of the environment. For just one examle, our byproducts are newspaper particles produced by grinding the rough edges. This is sucked up and filtered in a tank. The contents of which are put in our garden as mulch. Cool.
    Our factory is extremely low on the energy consumption scale in producing pencils. Unlike wood pencils, we have no trees to chop, no wood slates to grind, no hexagonal shapes to made by grinding the wood. We run on electric saws and no huge sanding machines. We don’t have to dry to wood in huge kiln. Also notice we use no ferrel aluminium – trying to reduce our footprint. We would love to have a discussion about our factory and energy production, waste, impact compared to the wood pencil producers. This is a comparison our plant will win hands down. I have been to wood pencil factories and I know that we can’t even have the discussion in their plant. We can in ours, we have no noise as we have no heavy saws, blades, sanders, grinders, cutters, etc.
    People who have used recycled newspaper pencils coming away unhappy doesn’t surprise us. Most of the factories producing these pencils are rip offs. Be careful, but O’BON is a brand. As a brand, we are here to stay and are committed to improving our product. We do this by listening to all complaints and especially enjoy engaging in these kinds of debates. O’BON is completely non toxic – we have EN-71 certification (kid toy safe cert) while others will not as they are not a brand.
    The issue of whether we are eco-friendly as newspaper comes from trees is an interesting argument. We would contend that the large pencil companies have invested huge amounts of money and resources in reducing bio-diverse forests to produce their sustainable forests. These forests are huge and often primary forest are cut to produce them. This has happened in Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Phillipines. This maddens me as to tear down a primary forest to create a sustainable forest – and then claim that you are environmental is deception at best. O’BON strives to reduce these sustainable forests and eliminate the practice of making pencils from trees. To us, it seems so old fashioned as there is better technology to make a pencil.
    I save the best for last: Why are our pencils better than wood pencils. Some people seem to be incredulous about our claim of lasting 3 times longer. How is this possible? The graphite is the same, the length is the same, this is a blatant lie, you may think. Let me explain.
    Unlike wood pencils which are made by gluing two slates of wood together, O’BON uses newspaper, wrapped tightly. Wood pencil slates are grooved to hold the graphite and then glued tight. There is almost always air gaps in this process. So, as every young student learns, wood pencil graphite easily breaks when dropped. Often it shatters all the way up to the eraser. So when you sharpen such a dropped pencil, the graphite is cracked resulting in breakage. This is so frustrating and an extremely common event. Just ask any child.
    Now, take our O’BON pencils. Smash it on the desk. I mean really smash it, over and over and over. Now sharpen it. Wow, not broken. Try this experiment with any wood pencil. In our road shows and exhibition we love to invite people to drop or smash our pencils – they just don’t break. Audiences are amazed. (Other recycled newspaper pencils may not withstand this punishment, but O’BON pencils will. So, with our superior manufacturing technique – and our exclusive tight roll-on method, our graphite will not crack. Don’t believe, buy a box and try it. Now if you snap the pencil in two pieces, the graphite will break as well…Duh! Since O’BON pencils have no air gap, the destructive drop or smash has no impact on our fragile graphite. O’BON pencil graphite simply doesn’t break when wrapped 36 times by our newspaper.
    It is this fact regarding our non-breakable graphite (when pencil is dropped or snapped) that leads us to our claim of lasting longer than wood pencil. We stand by our claim and ask you to investigate.

  9. John,

    Interesting reply. It sounds like you are somehow professionally associated with the O’Bon brand. I still have some lingering doubts about the eco-friendliness of the pencil. Making the original newspaper is long and dirty process that requires a lot of machinery and a lot of power. Next, the paper was transported to a publishing company and printed on. After being distributed and read, it is collected and processed one final time by your plant. Your own process could be clean and minimalistic but I think you need to take into account the whole process from chopping down the tree to making paper to printing to recycling to making a pencil. So while you do give the original wood fibers some extra mileage by reusing them, you still had to chop down a tree to begin with. That is why I find your claim that “we have no trees to chop down” somewhat misleading.

    Are the pencils made in your own O’Bon factory or are they made to your tight specifications in a general factory that could make anything? Starting up your own manufacturing plant is a serious task.

    I’m not sure if I believe that ISO 9001 certification is as big of a benefit as some would think. I understand the general process of certification. Our company gets audited every October and the internal processes are examined. If you follow your processes then you get the stamp of approval. It doesn’t mean that a process is good or bad – just that you have one, it’s documented, and you follow it.

    I don’t mean to say that you have a bad product. In fact, it looks snazzy and has some great marketing momentum behind it. You will definitely get your entitlement here. However, I would liken it to a Toyota Prius. You buy it more for the social statement and you are willing to pay the higher cost. A Hyundai Accent which is half the cost and gets 40 MPG (if you drive it carefully) instead of 50 MPG. The Prius may run cleaner but what about those batteries? You can’t exactly toss them in a dumpster and let them quietly biodegrade. They require processing.

    — Boris

  10. John, welcome, it’s great that you found pencil talk, and thanks for contributing.

    It is a fascinating discussion on a subject with many nuances. If I buy a more expensive (but “environmentally friendly”) product, what about the extra carbon I burned in earning the money to buy the product? Will it balance out? I’m with kiwi-d on this one – the calculations can quickly become confusingly complicated.

    About an O’Bon pencil lasting three times as long – it seems the premise of woodcase pencils regularly dropping and internally shattering is required to support the conclusion. So what about a pencil that stays in a pencil tray or cup when not being used, and doesn’t get dropped – will it still have one-third the lifetime of an O’Bon?


    I’ve already heard directly that readers are enjoying this post, and I want to thank those who have taken the time to contribute to the discussion. (And especially Boris and John!)

  11. Hi guys!

    The one thing I want to point out in this discussion is in response to Boris’ argument about the eco-friendliness of using newspaper. I think this statement is absolutely true. The production of newspaper is very much a dirty process, and would hardly be mistaken for environmental.

    But the difference is that O’BON does not manufacture newspaper to make pencils. It takes preexisting newspaper that has been discarded (and which would otherwise likely end up in a landfill) and turns it into a cool product. There is a HUGE difference there. To be able to use an already manufactured material instead of harvesting new raw materials is a substantial improvement environmentally. Can you imagine how significant a difference there would be if we could produce new products out of ALL our discarded material? This is not just “some extra mileage,” but a LOT of extra mileage. The entire concept of acting environmentally is not to revolutionize our world in 24 hours. Instead, consumers make small but significant steps that, when added wholly, can make a huge difference.

  12. I’m going to cogitate on this for a while. But in the meantime…

    Just for the record, John, it would certainly appear you are an employee or associate of O’Bon – could you specifically clarify your status? Assuming you know, could you state who the certification body is for O’Bons ISO 9001 & 14001 certifications. Yes, its true, I’m too lazy to google and search and find the answwer myself.

  13. There is plenty of emphasis on managing forests in the U.S. these days. Not sure about other countries — would have to check into that.

    For now, I will stick to the good ol’ cedar or other softwood pencils. Part of the reason for using a traditional style pencil over mechanical or a pen is the wood grain texture, the aroma, the beautiful paint, annoying office mates with the sound of a pencil sharpener, etc.

    Besides, there is so much more wood being consumed to make paper and building supplies than is used to make pencils!!!! If you want to conserve that badly, start building houses out of mud and switch to the water fountain toilet instead of tissue paper. What about all the snail mail propaganda I used to get from the Sierra Club until I had to demand they stop sending me crap every few weeks. Some of us are getting pretty sick of all the eco trash-talk that’s going on in the world. I’ll bet for every entity who is really trying to make a difference, there are 5 entities trying to capitalize on some ‘eco-friendly’ gimmick that doesn’t really make much difference.

    Wood is the ultimate renewable resource (as long as its renewed). But recycling is also a good thing. As long as O’Bon maintains a position of recycled pencils are good, that’s cool with me. As soon as they start bashing wooden pencils to make themselves look eco-superior, that’s bad.

    So what do you do with all the newspaper pencil shavings? Do you recycle or just trash em?

  14. I think we need to be careful with the purported environmental benefits of the O’Bon pencil. All of us seem to agree that paper manufacturing is a dirty and unfriendly process. Couple this with loose environmental laws in Asia and you have something that would give the EPA and US agencies a heart attack. Ever wonder why most rubber and erasers are made in Asia and not in the US? It’s not just because of cheap labor. There’s a reason that many streams in Asia are black and there are no fish in them.

    Let us look at the process after the newspaper has been made and read by the Chinese consumer. Assuming that he threw it away into a recycling container, we will further assume that he threw it away neatly folded. Other people may not be so gentle to their newspapers and they will crumple it, tear it, or even spill something on it. Add to that the people who throw away their trash like food wrappers, half full soda cans, and chewing gum. It’s better than littering but it complicates the recycling process. Every recycling center needs some serious process that will take this collection, separate it, and turn it into a clean roll of patch work paper. This will involve filtering, grinding, mashing, pressing, and drying. In this case, I doubt any sort of bleach or coloring will be used to remove the original print. Now we have a large and lengthy roll of recycled paper processed by machinery that is no doubt powered by a big coal burning plant (for the most part).

    After delivering this paper to O’Bon, they need to cut it down to size and begin wrapping it around the lead. Perhaps the paper is soaked in some sort of glue along the way. This glue, by the way, must be water proof. After all, would you want your pencil to dissolve and come apart when it gets wet from the sweat of your hands, a spilled soda, or a rained soaked back-pack?

    Fantastic! The pencil is complete, packed, and ready to go. One problem still exists. This pencil is in China and I’m in the US (or Europe, etc). So now it needs to either go on an airplane or a big boat – both of which are dirty polluters! And these aren’t the clean modern airplanes or boats made in the US for the future. No, these machines are probably over 20 years old and they let out as much unburned fuel as they actually burn. Once it reaches the correct continent, then it is no different than a domestically manufactured pencil. It must be transported to distribution centers, etc.

    So while no additional trees were cut down and processed to make the pencil, a lot of energy was expended and pollution generated instead. Nothing was really “saved” so to speak. The consumption was merely displaced. Instead of cutting down more trees in sustainable growth forests, we dug up more coal and burned it. We also sucked up more oil from the ground to make diesel or jet fuel. So I don’t really see how the O’Bon pencil is environmentally friendly except for the fact that it makes a social statement that people are willing to pay for.

    Economically, this is a great product because it passes through so many hands – hands that are connected to people getting paid and staying employed.

    Now, if all of this was done at the local level then you would have a win-win situation. It would take away the huge expenditure of fuel used in transport. Replace the coal fired plants with solar panels and you have a process that virtually runs on nothing but sunlight and water.

    One could argue that the cargo plane or boat from China is already filled with consumer goods making their way to the US. Why not hitch a ride? Well, it did. And perhaps the additional crate of pencils did little to add any extra pollution to an already polluting transport. But isn’t the point here to eliminate the pollution? Why support it? I’m not trying to imply any sort of national pride or that all things should be made in the US. We can’t stop globalization and I don’t mind that. God bless it. But let’s use it appropriately and not just because that is what we are culturally trained to do.

    Again, I don’t mean to say that the O’Bon pencil is a terrible product. In fact, I have never held one or used one. It probably works great! However, it doesn’t take much thought to realize what it takes to build something and transport it – especially if it is something you for a living in a different market. Nothing is ever simple.

    True environmental friendliness comes first from conservation. Use less, burn less, and destroy less. Ride a bike to work 2x a week if you can. Save the extra trip to the store when the errand list gets longer. Reuse your towels if you can. Read the news electronically instead of on paper. Drive slower. Once we lean out our consumption then we can begin to effectively analyze how to reuse our waste. Otherwise, we’re just giving ourselves another excuse to consume because we think it can be easily recycled.

    Just some more thoughts…

  15. Seems to me theres a few different comparisons being made and mixed together here.

    Pencils made from unsustainably harvested wood sources or from recycled paper by “un-environmentally friendly” factories and processes, etc are both obviously bad. So that leaves pencils from sustainable wood sources and pencils from recycled paper by efficient eco-friendly factories like O’Bon claim to be.

    The pencil made from sustainable wood would seem to be the best option, but given that there is (and always will be?) an existing source of paper to recycle the question is whats better – let the paper decompose naturally in a landfill and get a new woodcase pencil, OR use energy etc to collect, process and make a new recycled paper pencil? I just think that’s too hard to figure out, especially when you include the environmental impact of transport, power generation, etc. Each side will have experts, reports, etc to prove their case. I do think as above that companies like O’Bon should concentrate on the positive and push their eco-friendly barrel as their own, not get into bashing woodcase pencils, etc except perhaps those specifically made from unsustainably harvested wood.

    Don’t get me started on the definition of sustainable harvest as that’s a whole other can of worms, with lots of sustainable harvests being un-sustainable in the eyes of many.

    Finally – Boris is right – using less in the first place will achieve heaps more than our choice of pencils ever will.

  16. I don’t mean to beat this subject to death but I found an interesting article on Velonews. A company called Calfee is known to produce very expensive high end carbon fiber bicycles. In the article, they are talking about making bikes out of bamboo. As long as the growth is sustainable and properly managed then it is possible to make a very “green” product. The goal is to make these bikes in Africa where the local residents will see some economic development and benefit from a new manufacturing plant.

    I thought it was an interesting parallel to our discussion above. O’Bon is moving away from the raw tree while Calfee is going closer to it. Ok, so bamboo is not a tree but it’s not recycled newspaper either.

    Here is the link.


  17. Boris — I think you’re missing that O’Bon is taking newsprint that would already exist — as long as there are newspapers — and recycling/reusing it. They are not making newsprint, so they are not contributing to a dirty process — they are merely extending the product before it ends up biodegrading (as pencil shavings).

    I don’t buy O’Bons primarily for the environmentally impact, which I would guess to be pretty small compared to, say, using public transportation. I buy them because they’re good pencils — hefty, colorful, write well, easy to sharpen, etc. I like them as well as some others I’ve gotten for a higher price, and kids really like them (gave some as Christmas gifts).

  18. Diane,

    I totally understand what O’Bon is doing. The question is, as Kiwi-d so succinctly put it, is it worth the extra energy expenditure and pollution output to collect Chinese newspapers, run them through another process powered by conventional dirty energy, and ship the final product across the Pacific Ocean on yet another polluting source?

    Whatever we do leaves some sort of greenhouse footprint because something had to be burned or processed for energy to be released. Gasoline, coal, natural gas, etc all let out a lot of nasty fumes when burned. Nuclear, while containable, leaves wasted radioactive fuel. Hydro power, while somewhat green, destroys the quality of water, kills fish, and creates unnatural floods. Even solar panels require a one time energy expenditure in their manufacture before they put out their power. The goal is to try to minimize this greenhouse footprint – not simply displace it.

    Another thought. A lot of electronics that we in America and Europe throw away is considered toxic waste. The reason is because of the lead solder used to mount the devices to the circuit boards. Electronics cannot simply be thrown away in the wastebasket. Ever wonder why you have to pay to throw away a conventional CRT TV? It’s not because it’s big and bulky. No, it has lead and hundreds of other nasty elements in there. Same thing with batteries. So what do we do? We, the 1st world countries, actually ship the waste to dump sites in Asia where there is no such law. Seriously. The locals, in search of wealth, dig through this electronics landfill trying to extract any little bits of precious metal like gold conductors, etc. Unfortunately, they expose themselves to the nasty elements and get poisoning. We save our own dumps from pollution (“clean”) but we just end up displacing it to another country in this case with even more devastating effects.

    That is one reason, among many, why there is a huge push in the electronics industry to go lead-free. Of course, lead-free processes are not without their own problems. Only a long term analysis will really tell if we have actually saved anything or if we are just displacing again.

    Is there a true savings in using O’Bons manufacturing and export process that can be consistently quantified here or are we relying on marketing here because it’s hip to use words like “recycling” and “environmentally friendly”? Are we simply giving ourselves another excuse to consume more because we think the material can magically be recycled over and over again without any greenhouse footprint left behind?

  19. Boris,

    I have a lot of respect for your arguments and , being an environmental studies graduate, I can see that you too understand quite a bit about conservation, limiting consumption and the recycling process.

    However, i think much of your argument rests on a set of assumptions instead of facts. It is well documented that the process of making pencils from recycled newspaper requires far less energy, far less heavy, dirty machinery and creates far less waste. In addition, if you got to know the O’BON company and the people that run it, they are very much environmentalists first and business people second. Most of the waste that is generated at their factory is collected and goes, in fact, to gardens in surrounding areas that results in large collections of thriving plants and trees. Their products, which also include notebooks, folders and binders, often are designed with the purpose of educating children about the environment, endangered species etc. Furthermore, they are very active within the communities where they sell their products, often giving demonstrations in schools to teach kids about the importance of recycling, conservation and protecting wildlife. Trust me, this is a company that works very hard to be environmental, and if you did some deeper research on them you would see that.

    I will concede your point about shipping the items over here. However, understand that most of O’BON’s consumer base is located in Asia. It makes perfect sense that, at this time, their factory would be located in the heart of their business sector. They do this because the Chinese are especially good at the pencil producing process and because they cut down on all the dirty shipping you are criticizing them for. Essentially, it is the “win-win” that you mentioned in most cases. Granted, the company is very new to the United States (having started here in the middle of last year, from what I understand) and so, for the moment, they are bound to ship products in. This makes them no less environmental than ANY company that is based in a foreign country that is trying to break into the U.S. market, and by no means even comes close to making up for all the other positives they offer environmentally.

    My final note is on the idea of being more environmental. Of course conservation is critical. You are absolutely right that being eco-friendly starts with riding your bike to work, or taking public transport, or reusing your towels. However, don’t underestimate the power of simply choosing a product that uses less energy to produce, results in less waste, uses a type of human byproduct as a raw material and focuses on educating individuals about environmental issues. On four significant levels, it beats any product that is made from scratch. And to contest this, you need more than assumptions such as “Instead of cutting down more trees in sustainable growth forests, we dug up MORE coal and burned it” because they’re just plain wrong.

  20. Hi Adam,

    I work in the energy sector for a large conglomerate and I am very familiar almost every type of energy production process. Additionally, my company is also heavily involved in the oil and gas sector as well so exploration and refining is another area that I am very familiar with. My only “miss” is not having visited a solar farm because my company isn’t involved in that technology.

    I have had the privilege to visit many customer sites to see their machines, instrument them with our systems, and help optimize their operations. Also, I have worked on designing plant wide control systems and condition monitoring systems. Extracting energy from natural resources is a terribly complicated affair that I think is unknown and invisible to many people. As an environmentalist by education, I’m sure you can appreciate some of this complexity. Nothing is free – especially energy.

    The world’s appetite for energy is insatiable. With oil going over $100 per barrel, companies like Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron are exploring further and deeper below the crust. It is not uncommon to dig 5 to 10 (if not even more) miles now below the surface searching for oil. Can you imagine how far down that is? We dig deeper and deeper for coal as well. Trust me, there is plenty more oil and coal down there than we think. The cost is rising not because of supply problems under the crust. We just can’t dig it out fast enough, refine it, and deliver it. It all goes back to consumption. In the past, when energy was cheaper, it simply wasn’t worth the investment to go to such depths. Times have changed and the economic case is there.

    Even though we are finding more energy down lower, the quality of that energy is dropping. The coal and oil at these new depths contains more contaminants like sulfur, mercury, and arsenic. As you can probably guess, processing this raw material and extracting energy out of it is becoming more and more difficult. In the past, the energy provider would have just burned it and let the smoke rise to the sky. Not today. Regulations are stricter and dirty raw material is also not as efficient (i.e. profitable) as purer sources. Additional processes must be put in place sometimes to clean up that lump of coal be it gasification, liquidification, compression, etc.

    Energy producers run like private companies. Their number one goal is profit. When electricity jumps in price to $1k/MegaWatt, believe me, every piece of machinery in their plant is running to maximum capacity even if it is polluting. It may only be less efficient but there is no way that they are going to miss out on that price surge. The possible fines are a drop in the bucket compared the millions pouring in because everyone wants to run their air conditioner.

    I wish energy were cleaner but this is the reality we have today. Behind that one gallon of gasoline you pour into your car and behind the illuminating light bulbs is probably several hundred pounds of coal, natural gas, running water, and uranium (assuming a balanced energy portfolio). Remember, these plants don’t run at 100% efficiency. Hydro is pretty good at 95%-98% but coal can’t even dream of those numbers just yet. People don’t think about this. All we can think about is the numbers rolling across the screen at the pump and the monthly check we write for our gas and electricity. Energy consumers cannot choose their energy sources – most factories included. Everything is tied together in a grid. Sometimes, in some cases, a refinery or coal mine will have it’s own local power plant. This is more common in remote areas where running a transmission line the required distance is almost the same cost as building a local plant. Running transmissions lines is almost as expensive as paving a freeway. I don’t know why specifically but it is. Distribution is not my field of expertise. Many refineries in the Sakhalin Islands have their own plants – huge! I have seen this.

    If O’Bon’s primary customer base is in China then I do applaud that. A local Chinese company is using local Chinese resources to sustain themselves. I thought the article in the SFSU student newspaper said the company was started by an American student at SFSU with $5000. At least that is how I understood it. Am I mistaken? Is he just a reseller or is he a manufacturer?

    An American starting a business in China for the Chinese market and running it from America with only $5000 of capital investment is a genius. I have to take my hat off to him. Now if he could transfer that technology here to the States and cover his factory with solar panels then he will truly be running a green business. There would be no doubt about it. A pencil made in the US from US recycled material with clean renewable energy from the neighboring solar farm – who wouldn’t jump up and down for that? The plant would be a showcase example of modern American manufacturing. Open the plant in a state like Nevada. Plenty of sunshine and low taxes!

    I have no doubt that the people behind the O’Bon products are responsible businessmen with high standards and integrity. Their pencil may indeed last longer than a conventional wooden pencil. It probably doesn’t break as often too. All of their out reach programs sound like good medicine to a society burdened with gas guzzling SUVs. Again, I salute their fine efforts.

    Personally, I am not convinced of the eco-friendliness of an O’Bon pencil because I cannot ignore the global picture. Yes, other products are made in China as well and shipped here too but the little Hotwheels cars I buy for my son that come from China don’t claim to be eco-friendly. The cheap clothes and kitchen utensils I buy at Walmart also don’t claim any “green” to their name. I consider that fair although sad. O’Bon is taking a step in the right direction but it’s not quite there yet. Their technology is like a hybrid car. It’s a transitional technology before we get onto the real game changer. Just because a Prius makes a statement isn’t enough for me to purchase it either. There are other ways to make statements like “boycotting” gasoline. After all, your car isn’t burning any when it’s turned off and big oil isn’t collecting any more money from you if you don’t drive. “Boycott” other products as well. (I hope you understood my “boycott” as conservation)

    Others may disagree with me and that is fine. All of us will have a different perspective due to our education and work experience. We will put our dollars toward what we believe in. If you believe in the eco-friendliness of an O’Bon product, in the social statement that they make, the ingenuity of their business, or any combination of those things then they deserve your support.

  21. Boris,

    Thank you, I believe that is a much more fair reflection of O’BON on your part.

    Oh, and from what I understand, the United States division of O’BON was started by an SFSU college student on $5,000. The company existed previously in Asia but he created it’s formal presence here (O’BON USA?) and is now trying to build it up.

  22. A novelty trying to generate a buzz with greenwashing? O’Bon claims they’ve been “ripped off by the US government” on their blog.

    See, http://bigscream.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2007-09-22T08%3A31%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=7

    Fact is there’s anti dumping tarriffs against all Chinese wood pencil manufacturers because….well, because they’re dumping their product below the cost of production in an effort to run the domestic trade out of business.

    This has not been a secret. Anyone who has brought in Chinese pencils in the last ten years or so knows about this. It’s news only if you’re interested in trying to inject a note of victimization into this.

    Who is O’Bon? Who are their principals in China? What, exactly are they doing besides alluding to government conspiracies in an attempt to enlist the gullible?

    Frankly, I do not fancy the combative note that John has taken-if that is who he really is. “Blatant lies”? “Ripped off by the government”? I’m not having it.


  23. They’re also expensive. A 10 pack of OBon recycled newspaper pencils will cost you $5.49 on their website.


    By comparison, I have a 36 pack of Office Max economy wood case pencils made in Viet Nam that cost me $2.29. They’re reasonably good utility grade pencils too, even though they’re made out of a soft white wood that is definitely not cedar and doesn’t have that nice aroma.
    With the $3.20 I’m saving I’ll head out to McDonalds, buy from the dollar menu, and take my political incorrectness on the half shell.

  24. I think it would be interesting to mount the O’Bon pencil on a drum, like Thomas Edison’s old phonograph. Spin the drum and start strafing the pencil slowly to one side. Keep doing this and see how long the pencil lasts. How many miles will the pencil write for? I know there is a statistic out there that estimates 35 miles but has it been verified? Can the O’bon do 50 miles? Maybe it really does last 5x longer?

  25. O’BON
    Fact: the manufacturing process extends the life of wood to create a pencil
    Fact: the pencils “perform” better than your regular wooden ones (with which the graphite/lead breaks)
    Fact: the pencils contain more color and attractive designs than the ordinary
    Fact: the pencils sharpen better, and faster
    Fact: if ALL wood pencil makers adopted O’BON’s manufacturing process immediately, absolutely no more trees will ever need to be cut down to produce pencils
    Fact: Prairie Dawg WOULD be a loyal McDonald’s customer
    Fact: I love O’BON pencils
    How many people here still think Global Warming is a myth?

  26. Ooh, I don’t know, I kind of like Prairie Dawgs ideas better. I mean, just think of how much amazing McDs I could be feeding my unfortunate family while we sit around the table getting turned on by the fresh smell of cedar. LOL! Oh wait, they WEREN’T cedar? Well, that changes everything. Right now I have this vision in my head of a bunch of wood pencil company CEO’s sitting around a big conference table, dollar-fries in hand, snorting cedar pencils. Hey, whatever turns you on, big boy!

    Seriously though, I’ve used O’BON a bunch. The pencils work great and they look awesome. I think their notebooks and folders are even cooler though. They are more of a school supply company than a pencil company.

  27. I bet O’Bon is tickled pink to know that they have a lot of die hard fans. It looks like they found the right combination of marketing and price positioning to win over consumers. While their intentions are good, I still can’t convince myself of their overall eco-friendliness and major impact on the environment. We “extend the life of wood” by making paper through a filthier process than making pencils. I am still test driving my single Dixon Ticonderoga since February and I have yet to break a lead. Then again, I’m not using it as a drummer’s stick either. So if all pencil makers adopt O’Bon’s process then we’ll stop making pencils our of wood and start making them out of paper. Great, but where are we going to get the paper? Get that chain saw ready and clear your throat to yell “Timber!”. Recycling old paper won’t be enough to meet the world’s demand for wooden pencils. All the old recycled paper has to shared with paper and cardboard manufacturers.

    Humans have inhabited the earth for only a short period of time. We have been monitoring global temperatures for an even shorter period of time. The trends we see as global warming have been attributed to our industrial pollution but how do we know that the melting ice at the polar caps isn’t part of some longer term cycle – something that cycles in 10,000 years?

    Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not claiming one thing or another to be a myth or an exaggeration. Mankind has been trashing the planet at a pretty good rate and we’re only now thinking of possibly slowing down the rate. You don’t need to go back very far in human history to know that the air was once very clear.

    The wood cut down for world wide pencil consumption is trivial compared to the amount that goes towards paper and cardboard. To really make an impact on the rate of wood fiber consumption we should really stop using as much paper as we do. Everything from packaging, to print-outs, to newspapers…

    Then again, the O’Bon is an accessory to a lifestyle, isn’t it? Using an O’Bon is like making a statement with a Prius. It says that you are willing to spend money on the image of being eco-friendly regardless of whether or not the product is eco-friendly in the long run (i.e. 20-40 years).

    We cut down trees left and right but we also plant them right back. And oddly enough, they do go grow back. The environmentalists of the 90s put a huge damper on the logging industry and maybe rightfully so. At the same time, some of our forests became so overcrowded with trees that there are serious fire hazards around. I live in a heavily wooded area that is fairly dry. Humidity drops down to 1-5% during the summer and we are plagued with fires! There is too much fuel around. Think of all those pine needles that fall to the ground. The forests here are like tinder boxes. A good balance needs to be struck between harvesting, safety, economics, and environmental stewardship.

    I’m sure the debate will go on.

  28. rofl!

    Source for this please: “We ‘extend the life of wood’ by making paper through a filthier process than making pencils.”

    If you’re still trying to use the “making a newspaper is dirty” argument, give it a rest. O’BON has nothing to do with that. They simply take a byproduct that would otherwise go to a landfill to make it into something else.

    O’BON: Wood – Paper – Newspaper – Good, attractive pencils that kids love

    You: Wood – Paper – Newspaper – Landfill

    thats..um..real nice.

    and source for this: “Recycling old paper won’t be enough to meet the world’s demand for wooden pencils.”

    Could be true, but sounds like you pulled it out of your…wood grinder.

    Oh, and about this: “Then again, the O’Bon is an accessory to a lifestyle, isn’t it? Using an O’Bon is like making a statement with a Prius. It says that you are willing to spend money on the image of being eco-friendly regardless of whether or not the product is eco-friendly in the long run (i.e. 20-40 years).”

    Um, actually no, using O’BON is more about using a good product with extremely attractive designs which also happens to carry a bright, useful educational message intended for children.

    I’m glad you bring up the Prius. The topic of choosing cars that are fuel efficient is a great example of how you are totally missing the point in the environmental debate. The process of making a car is by no means clean, and neither is the process of disposing of one that can no longer be used. Cars also burn gasoline, which pollutes, releasing greenhouse gases and damaging the environment. But people still need cars, and if enough people buy cars with higher fuel efficiency, we have less of an impact. Ask any environmental expert what would happen if EVERYONE that owns a car replaced theirs with a more fuel efficient one. Good luck finding one that says the world would not be a cleaner place.

    Finally, some common sense: “A good balance needs to be struck between harvesting, safety, economics, and environmental stewardship.”
    Excellent point! Thats why having products made from materials other than wood is a good thing!

  29. “The entire concept of acting environmentally is not to revolutionize our world in 24 hours. Instead, consumers make small but significant steps that, when added wholly, can make a huge difference.” -Kerry

    “I bet O’Bon is tickled pink to know that they have a lot of die hard fans. It looks like they found the right combination of marketing and price positioning to win over consumers. While their intentions are good, I still can’t convince myself of their overall eco-friendliness and major impact on the environment.” -Boris; 16 comments later

    It’s no wonder you’re “sure the debate will go on”

  30. KcD,

    It’s interesting that you tell me to give the paper manufacturing process example a rest because the O’Bon pencil is made of… paper. As consumers we see only the final product. We don’t get to see all the processes used to create the product. If we saw the processes used for things we buy then we would have completely different lifestyles. Think of how many more vegetarians would be around if people actually followed a cow from the field to the meat packing plant. Making paper is not a clean process and it certainly isn’t cleaner in China.

    Perhaps one way to think of recycling products is this: would you erase a whole sheet of paper in order to save it and reuse it? If you do erase it then you can claim that you saved a piece of paper. However, along the way you burned through a whole eraser doing it. Did you really save anything? Or, did you end up spending more of something else to save a different thing? Was it worth burning through that eraser? That’s the only question and argument I am bringing up with the O’Bon.

    One thing that seems to get little attention with wooden pencils is that they biodegrade beautifully no matter where they end up: in the dump, in a fire, or even on the floor. It’s not like a glass bottle or a tin can that will sit around for hundreds (thousands?) of years. So I say let the pencil shaving go to the landfill. Good luck trying to find them like you would a thrown away wrench.

    Yes, for the most part, we all drive cars and I’m just as guilty as anyone for doing this. I try to do my bit by driving a Hyundai and I even traded in my Jeep for it. Additionally, I ride my bike to work at least two days a week. I only fill up my gas tank about once a month. You are totally right in that if people start switching over to more fuel efficient cars that the world be a cleaner place. Secretly, I hope gasoline keeps climbing in price. It would painful for the consumer but people respond much better to pain than rhetoric.

    The Prius carries some controversy along with it’s fuel efficiency. Along with being green, a product needs to be economical. You need to consider the cost of ownership over 10 years, the cost per mile, and the total amount of pollution released during its lifetime. The Prius in many ways is not much more efficient or cleaner than a regular gasoline car. I say this because I average 42 MPG on my Hyundai which costs around $12k less than the Prius and the Honda Civic (which can get wonderful fuel economy if driven correctly) in general is an extremely clean burning car. Neither of these two gasoline cars have big nasty batteries that will one day wear out and require a huge effort to service. Unfortunately, many people compare the Prius to large SUVs like the Cadillace Escalade, Ford Expedition, and Dodge Durango. Almost anything on the market would be better than those huge land yachts.

    Nobody really knows what we’re going to do with all the batteries once they wear out and can no longer effectively hold their charge. There will probably be some sort of recycling program but that’s just another process that will require more energy. Unless it runs on something like solar, get ready to see some more pollution coming from those coal burning plants to run the process while still trying to keep up with the world insatiable appetite for energy.

    Hybrids are a great idea and we’re learning a lot through building them and using them but to me it’s another example of making a statement more than making an impact. There are cheaper and easier ways to make the same statement without shelling out $24k: slowing down, driving less, working from home, and car pooling are just a few. Things are slowly changing and it will probably take a generation of people before we can look back far enough to see how far we have come.

    In a capitalist society, we are free to spend our money on what we believe in at a price that in the end we agree with. If you think that the O’Bon pencil is great for the statement it makes, for the process used to produce it, and for its overall attractiveness then that is fantastic. You should indeed support the company through your purchases. It keeps the economy moving. Seriously. All I am saying is that I personally don’t believe it, I don’t agree with the price ($0.50 each + S&H), and I question/doubt the validity of their claims. That’s all. If someone gifted me the pencils it’s not like I would throw them away or get an upset stomach.

    Seriously, to truly eliminate waste in a pencil sense, we should simply switch over to mechanical pencils and take care of them for 10-15 years. That could be a “significant step” as addressed by ProudOBONConsumer and Senator Kerry. Gone would be the trillions of wooden pencils produced every year around the world. Yet, here we are…

    So yes, the debate will continue in more areas than just O’Bon’s pencils. :-)

  31. The “Ripped Off by US Government” article generated some sour comments so i thought an important point (that is in the article) is missed. O’BON would love nothing more than to donate a 114% duty tax to any recycle, environmental or educational US company. We would be happy to do this. But to give the money directly to those who chop down 12 to 15 year old incensed cedar trees so they can produce more tree pencils is irratating. Give the duty to other good guys not the tree choppers. Could we contribute this duty to WWF to help support “Earth Day?” No, we have no choice as the government blindly looks at us as bringing in a pencil….At least our duty isn’t going to building bombs. This would be even more outrageous. Please understand that we are environmentalist and as such like to reduce, recycle and reuse.
    I realize this comment will not be popular to post on a wood pencil site, but O’BON is committed to taking waste (old newspaper) and turning it into something useful (instead of filling up a landfill). I would think that this would be better appreciated (even here) than it seems to be.

  32. Patriotjohn,

    I have to side with you on this one because I am not a huge fan of many protective tariffs. My company feels the same pain when it tries to export its products to the rest of world. We probably didn’t have much luck lobbying the foreign governments (communist, socialist, and otherwise) so we ended up opening factories and sites in those regions. Just think of the Japanese building Hondas and Toyotas in America. Some of our products and materials are actually built there and imported back to the US. None of them are super high tech – sheet metal, chassis, power supplies, etc. Many of our manufacturing personnel were very suspicious about this and they were afraid that their jobs were going to be outsourced with the products. It turns out that the outsourcing was a huge relief because it freed up resources previously dedicated to old tech products to work on new upcoming products. We even went as far as buying a major Chinese company and integrating it into our conglomerate. Who knows, maybe our American business practices and democratic ideals will trickle through the companies we deal with and slowly start some change in those dictatorship? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking…

    As long as O’Bon’s products are legally manufactured, imported, and sold then there is no reason you should be dinged. Wooden pencil manufacturers should welcome the competition and match the creativity and ingenuity. Let the free market decide on the position and price of the product. Some manufacturers will rise to the challenge and others will sink.

    I suppose your only two options are to lobby the politicians to change the law or to bring your manufacturing facilities over to the US and I’m sure you have probably investigated both options in depth. What are your thoughts on this?

  33. Boris
    Thanks for your supportive comments. It is really appreciated. We are considering the lobby approach, but long term we are looking at manufacturing here in the US. This would be great and we are looking forward to our expansion in the US to make this viable. We would like to bring our production capacity to the US, but we need to achieve about a 10 – 20 million pencil sale to make this economical. As our energy consumption is very low (we don’t have to chop up a tree into small pieces), and our manufacturing cost (machinery) is not so high, we just might be able to do this in 2009 or 2010. This will make us and a lot of you guys happy.
    We feel, as you do, it isn’t so fair that an environmental company like O’BON has to support those industries chopping down our trees. Since there are so few of these tree pencil business left, I wonder how much money they get every year. How many companies get this money? Does anyone know?
    If China is flooding this market with cheap wood pencils and there are only 2 US manufacturers, maybe someone should start a wood pencil business to receive all this money? Could it be in the millions? It just might be that lucrative….

  34. Patriotjohn,

    I don’t know how much money is being collected through the tariff and it may warrant some investigation. If, as you said, it is some lucrative amount that is being collected and dispersed then you may just have to start a wooden pencil manufacturing business here in the US. Pick a state with low taxes and cheap land. Harvest the forest responsibly (like a good farmer with his fields of corn) and make a good quality alternative to the Dixon Ticonderoga. Price it somewhere between $0.14-$0.17 per pencil and find a way to get it on the shelves of a major retailer. Use that to start up your recycled paper based pencil manufacturing and price that somewhere around $0.22-$0.30. You’d still be way ahead in terms of pricing than where you are today.

    Take a softer approach to the wooden pencil. After all, how much bashing of big SUVs do you hear from the Smart or Mini cars? Very little if any at all. They poke fun but that’s different. Humor usually works. Instead, they promote their best qualities (size and fuel economy) in some cute way and leave it at that. Otherwise, it starts a war like Ford vs. Chevy and that is never healthy. Also, be careful if the FTC decides to follow up on any negatively perceived claims coming from a newly subsidized business that receives all this wonderful money from tariffs!

    Our company offers many industrial plant monitoring systems and methods. The industry has standards and expectations. We always try to offer something better than what is the norm and we always promote new technologies to our customers. However, if the customer really really really wants an old fashioned solution then we have to offer that too. If we didn’t offer it then we would have no credibility. It would seem like we are pushing our own solution not because it’s better but because we don’t have anything else. We would seemingly have a small portfolio and less knowledge of the industry. It would tarnish our image of being experts in the field.

    Your recycled pencils would be made with local materials that were originally made using a cleaner process regulated by the EPA. Furthermore, your recycling process will also be cleaner due to the cleaner power used to operate your plant. I don’t know if you saw the latest news article about China’s greenhouse gases.


    Finally, there would be no transportation across the Pacific. I think you will be many steps ahead in terms of having a “greener” product.

    Your wooden pencil could be innovative too if you can find some new method of responsibly harvesting the wood, working with conservation groups that replant forests (and touting it on your packaging), or find some new way to make the pencils faster, cheaper, and better. The break-less pencil? Perhaps a new graphite mixture? A ferrule-less wooden pencil? I don’t know. There’s tons of ideas out there.

    Good luck!

  35. Boris,
    Thanks for all the advice on how to set up a tree-chopping, wood pencil business with your detailed recommended prices, but you miss my sarcasm. I’m totally committed to recycling and the environment – taking an old throw away, used up newspaper headed for a landfill, and giving that waste a new life. Even if I could earn a fortune from collecting the 114% duty from Chinese wood pencils, I would consider it dirty. I just wonder what the few remaining tree chopping pencil companies are raking in. My point is that there are millions of pencils flooding our market from China. Each pencil is assessed 114%. How much do these companies make? Can someone look at this?
    I am not interested in manufacturing wood pencils. I think you and I have had enough conversations for you to know this.
    I agree that the shipping (and the environomental impact) is an issue and we look forward to turning America’s used Wall Street Journals into beautiful O’BON pencils. This is our dream…and as you have heard…Yes We Can.

  36. Just a thought, maybe someone could ask Woodchuck as it is noted he is a knowledgeable and respected wood pencil manufacturer. How much government “help” does he receive from these imported pencils?

  37. I’ve tried to search around for further information to educate myself about wood vs. recycled paper pencils, and can’t find much.

    I have a theory as to why this is – the pencil industry is likely too minor compared to other wood product users (paper, construction lumber, etc.) to warrant dedicated attention from environmental researchers.

    The Timberlines blog did once mention (linked in the post) a study by Arthur D. Little (a management consultant) on some of these very issues.

    As summarized, the study suggested that woodcase pencils are more environmentally friendly than recycled pencils in aspects such as consumption of water and energy, emission of suspended solids, solid waste creation, and hazardous waste creation.

    Recycled pencils did better at raw material consumption, carbon monoxide emission, and organic pollutants.

    (There were other categories in the study as well.)

    The extensive discussion here was engaging. I’ve appreciated the amount of effort than has gone into some of these comments. The blog format doesn’t necessarily encourage lengthy statements, and I’d like to express my thanks to those who took the time to contribute.

  38. Hey Boris,
    I really enjoy reading your input on topics like SUV’s and CRT TV’s but what does that have to do with recycled pencils. We don’t care how many miles per gallon of gas you get in your Hyundai. It sounds like you really know what your talking about, some times, but at least stay on point and don’t bring up obvious facts are not relevant to this debate. Oh and by the way, try to keep your comments shorter so I don’t get bored reading about random stuff.

  39. Hello Sandy,

    You’re probably right that I like to digress a lot but at the same time I think we can see a lot more of the world if we try to relate together seemingly unlike things. I say this because in the end there is a huge balance sheet behind everything that is manufactured but unfortunately we often miss it as it becomes buried under marketing, news media, and politics. For the most part, all we see is the finished product and the convenience or good vibe we get from it. One way around this is to look at parallel examples.

    And as far as you getting bored… hmm… that’s an odd thing to say when you started off your comment telling me how you really enjoy reading my input. (??) I’m just happy to be here instead of somewhere else.

    — Boris

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