BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pen Life Cycle: Raw Materials
BIC Cristal ballpoint pens are the number one most consumed pens in the world. This common, inexpensive object is a staple in every household, and it is easily recognizable by its distinctive appearance and shape. Due to its seeming simplicity and ordinariness, not much thought goes into what processes go into the creation of this pen, and it has remained an often overlooked every day item. Unbeknownst to the common consumer, the creation of the BIC Cristal pen is a complex process that requires an enormous amount of energy and resources, and this process, like any product that must be manufactured, poses great environmental hazards to our world that we often do not stop to think about. By examining the individual components of the pen and understanding the myriad of processes that it must undergo before it is created and examined, then shipped, purchased, and finally in the hands of the consumer, it will become evident how much power, energy, and care went into making such a seemingly small and insignificant object, and how, through its continued mass production, only contributes to the overall destruction of our planet.
The most significant portion of the BIC Cristal ballpoint pen is the materials that go into its creation. Its iconic clear, plastic, cylindrical appearance is known throughout the world, as BIC is an enormous corporation that operates and distributes its products worldwide. The materials account for the majority of the greenhouse gases produced during its lifecycle – both in their acquisition and manufacturing. This facet of their nature is crucial to the discourse of challenging our need for basic items, such as stationary, and weighing them against the potential environmental hazards that they cause. It is important to question even the simplest of items because even something as seemingly insignificant as the BIC Cristal pen requires an astounding amount of energy to manufacture. Furthermore, due to its status as a household name, its mass production further worsens the BIC corporation’s carbon footprint because due to its high demand and relative ease of production, thousands of BIC products are sold every second! With those sales, there are multiple factors to consider as the issue is much more nuanced than simply purchasing a product and then consuming it; there is a multitude of facets that go into every single object that must be considered, such as the materials that are acquired to make it, the processes that it must undergo to create it, the waste of the vehicles and airplanes that are used to transport it, and the overall waste of the product itself once consumers are done with it. The BIC Cristal pen is thusly the perfect candidate for scientific scrutiny due to its impressive popularity yet low amount of recognition as a contributor to the global environmental health crisis.
Firstly, the individual components which comprise a BIC Cristal ballpoint are the barrel, cap, tube, tip, and ballpoint. The barrel is made of polystyrene, which is a cheap, non-recyclable plastic that takes upwards of five hundred years to decompose. The production of this plastic releases chlorofluorocarbons into the air, which contributes about 1,200 times the amount of greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide does. This material continues to be used, however, because when melted down and formed into the barrel, it provides a clear casing for the pen that allows consumers to see how much ink they have left within their product. The cap and ink tube, on the other hand, are made with a different plastic – polypropylene. Polypropylene is a recyclable plastic that is used for its durability and resistance to impact, and although it is less harsh to produce than polystyrene, it still produces a considerable amount of greenhouse gases during its production.
Furthermore, the primary producers of these synthetic plastics are China, France, the Netherlands, and the United States – first world countries that often prioritize environmental efficiency and have high environmental standards for their corporations, which BIC prides their self upon. However, despite this singular instance of altruism, in order to acquire their other components – brass for their tips and tungsten carbide for their ballpoints – they undergo questionable methods which thus undermine all of the ecological work that they promote and advertise to consumers. The brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and primarily comes from South America. In order to acquire this material, BIC employs miners who use open-pit mining techniques, which means that once natural materials are found within a pit, such as a quarry, it will be depleted until all of the useful minerals have been extracted. The open pits are often then converted into landfills to dispose of solid waste, which is greatly environmentally hazardous as well as dangerous to the overall health of the locals. Open-pit mining is also potentially hazardous to water tables, which is the level below which the ground is saturated with water, due to the depth at which they mine for copper. If mined too far, the surface of the earth may be penetrated and damaged, disrupting the natural water tables below the surface and causing harm to the ecological environment. Also, acidic mining chemicals may potentially leach into natural aquifers, thus poisoning water supplies and destroying whole communities. This is an especially prevalent issue because it raises the question of how truly important are our everyday products to us that large corporations would be willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of whole communities in second- and third-world countries in order to satisfy the needs of first world consumers for something as simple as a cheap ballpoint pen?
Lastly, the tungsten carbide ballpoint is the most destructive material of all the BIC Cristal’s components. Tungsten carbide is an ultra-strong material that is often used for industrial and manufacturing purposes. The precision level of these spherical ballpoints must be so accurate that if a single ballpoint if found to be misshapen or flawed within a batch, then the whole batch – containing thousands of these components – of ballpoints is thrown away. This is incredibly wasteful as they are not recyclable and only contribute to the overall waste of the production of their pens. Furthermore, the acquisition of tungsten carbide for BIC Cristal production is controversial in that it is often sourced from underprivileged, third-world countries. For example, it is known as a “conflict material” in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the majority of mines are protected by militarized groups who know of its value to first-world industry. However, other countries that this material may be sourced from include China, Russia, and Bolivia, who all also have a history of a military presence protecting the supply of precious minerals. This is troublesome to the BIC corporation because, admittedly, they have not yet found a solution to recycling their products and might have to find alternative solutions in order to continue production in the future.
Moreover, although some of the materials within the BIC Cristal ballpoint pen may be recycled – the polypropylene cap and ink tube – but it is primarily seen as being single-use. Accordingly, people absent-mindedly throw away these pens and they end up being transported to international landfills, where poor countries, such as Vietnam, must live with the waste. This waste is currently not being managed and only accumulates further, creating issues of sanitation and health. Furthermore, when BIC products are thrown away in bulk, such as in the instance where a manufacturing error is made and batches of product are thrown away at a time, then it further creates an abundant amount of waste – both of the limited supply of raw materials used to create the product and the product that is thrown away after consumption, which dangerously accumulates overtime.
The material phase of production within BIC Cristal ballpoint pens accounts for over 90% of the energy used within its lifecycle. An enormous amount, steps must be taken to lower BIC’s carbon footprint in regards to its production. Especially concerning the increasing scarcity of the tungsten carbide, the greenhouse gases emitted during plastic production, and the potential devastation of major water sources during copper mining, the creation and production of these pens poses a serious environmental hazard to the world. Although it remains a staple in homes worldwide, consumers must consider if the convenience of having an affordable and easily accessible pen outweigh the potential devastation of many natural resources. It is nuanced situations such as these where consumers must take a critical look at the state of the world and genuinely reconsider if mass production is more important than our earth, or potentially if we could become more earth-conscious people and respect and protect our belongings, such as being more aware of losing our everyday, seemingly replaceable items and seeing the true value that they withhold.
Sun, Karen. "The Story of BIC Cristal Pens." The Story of Stuff: Case Studies. FSP Story of Stuff, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
DES 40A: Energy, Materials, and Design Sec. 3
1 December 2016
Life Cycle of a BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pen: Embodied Energy
Everything that we use in our daily lives has been designed and created. These designed objects encompass all that we observe and come into contact with throughout our daily activities. People take many of these items for granted, disregarding the fact that even a small item like a BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pen has actually been designed and created for a specific purpose. With an item as simple as a pen, people tend to just focus on the energy that they use when operating this writing implement, but in reality energy is being consumed before consumers come into contact with the pen and after they dispose of it. By examining the lifecycle of the most popular writing implement, the Bic Cristal Ballpoint Pen, one can observe the energy that goes into the multiple steps that are involved in the production, distribution, and disposal that make this pen “sustainable”.
Ballpoint pens have been around for years. Prior to the development and eventual release of the Bic Cristal Ballpoint Pens, ballpoint pens were being designed, manufactured, and consumed. However, these prior pens were not as reliable and more expensive for consumers (Ballpoint). With the progression of technology, the ballpoint pen has been updated and designed with more streamlined thinking. Today the ballpoint pens are more inexpensive then ever to mass-produce.
In today’s age of the silicon era, many different types of plastics are used in the production of a variety of products that serve multiple purposes. In the manufacturing of the Bic Cristal Ballpoint Pen there are two different types of plastics that are used. These types of plastics include, Polystyrene and Polypropylene. Other than plastic these pens use two different types of metal, Brass and Tugsten-carbide. All of these materials come from different regions of the world. The plastics come from China, France, Netherlands, and the United States. The Brass for the pens comes from Chile, Peru, Australia, and China. Finally, the Tugsten-carbide comes from China, Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Bolivia (Michael). Due to the variety and geographic locations of the materials, the raw materials acquisition stage of the lifecycle, uses a high amount of embedded energy. This is one of the steps involved in the process that many people do not consider when using the products.
Obtaining materials consumes a large amount of energy in the creation of a product. Before the materials are processed and used in the manufacturing of the products, they need to be changed and manipulated into workable materials. All of these materials are then transported to the manufacturing plants where the pens are made. The majority of plastics are based in petroleum and natural gas. According to the Earth Resource Foundation, Polystyrene is made not only with elements based in petroleum it is also, “from the styrene monomer” (Polystyrene Fact Sheet). Polystyrene and Polypropylene are mass produced plastics. Worldwide production of Polyethylene is 80 metric tons for manufacturing processes per year. According to Curtis Hammon, a researcher from Stanford University, in order to create Polyethylene plastics from the raw materials for use in production, it takes roughly 3.6 x108 J of energy (Hamman). The other materials used in the production of the BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pens include metals. The material that makes up the tip of the pen is brass. Brass is a combination of two alloys, copper and zinc. In order to create brass you need to extract these two alloys from the earth. The creation of brass includes melting the copper alloy and then mixing in zinc. Copper melts at 1,981oF (Benor). Finally, the last material used in the pens is Tungsten. Tungsten is a secondary raw material that has the highest melting point of all metals according to the Encyclopedia Britinica. Once all of the materials have been acquired they need to be transported to the manufacturing plant. This takes energy to transport the materials. The materials come from all over the world then move to one of the many factories where they are all combined into the BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pens.
The production of the BIC Ballpoint Pens takes place in factories all over the world on every continent (Sun). One of BIC’s biggest factories is in France, where the BIC Ballpoint Pens were first developed. Once all of the materials arrive at the factory, the pens are ready to be manufactured. In order to manufacture the pens, they go through a multi-step process of machines. First, the plastic for the barrels are injected into a mold that then gets shaken up in a hopper before being rapidly cooled in order to hen be filled up again with hot plastic again in the continuation of the process. Second, the caps of the pens are made in the similar way as the barrels. While all of these processes are happening at the same time, ink is also being injected into a plastic tube, brass tips being formed and the ballpoints are pressed. According to Michael Lemon, “If even 1 in 5000 ballpoints are imperfect, the whole lot is discarded” (Lemon). This is a large waste not only in materials but also energy. In 2015, the factories used 1,157,395 gigajoules of energy (BIC). If the process has to be restarted because of an imperfection all of the previous steps have to be repeated adding to the energy use. Besides the acquisition of materials, the manufacturing, processing, and formulation step of a BIC Pen’s lifecycle uses the second largest amount of energy.
BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pens is one of the most popular pens that are available to consumers. The company promise advertises to the fact that, “BIC products make the consumer’s life easier…create something simple, yet reliable, which eases something we all do, that everyone can use” (BIC). The pens are produced all over the world, this leads to their popularity because they are easily accessible. On the BIC website, there is a counter in the top right hand corner where it counts exponentially every second the amount of BIC products that have been purchased worldwide once you enter the site. Because of the design mentality and the accessibility BIC has become the most popular ballpoint pen amongst consumers worldwide.
Due to the high consumer demand of the cheap and reliable ballpoint pens, a network of distribution of distribution must be established in order for consumers to receive the product. Because BIC has factories on every continent, the product is able to get to the consumers fast and efficiently. BIC only uses land and sea transportation to distribute their goods, while staying away from aircrafts. This is efficient because the factories are located in each country where the products are sold. The distance is reduced between the manufacturers and consumers. For example in Spain, BIC pens are distributed daily from the France plant by train, a minimal distance of 1,301 km (BIC). According to Thomas Tydal, an engineer, trains use an average of 586 kWh to travel a distance of 100 kilometers (Tydal). In the case of the transportation from the factory in France to the locations in Spain that is a total of approximately 13 times this amount totaling 7,618 kWh of energy to transport the pens by train. Not only is the transportation highly considered when thinking about distribution, the producers also take the packaging into account. In an interview conducted with the area manager of a facility in the USA, Christian Keator describes that, “[they are] focusing on innovative packaging, maximizing cube efficiency” (Reynolds). BIC uses lighter packaging made of cardboard to store their pens and pack them in groups of at least three pens per box. This step in the process uses the third highest amount of embodied energy.
By this time in the lifecycle, the pens have actually reached the consumers’ hands. At this step many consumers become aware of the energy that goes into the pen, however their thoughts are skewed because they only believe that the energy is happening in this step when they operate the pens. However, as we have already seen, there are steps that lead up to the product arriving to the consumers. Of all the steps included in the life cycle, this one uses the least amount of energy. This step just encompasses the energy it takes a person to write and then replace the ink tube if possible.
After the pens have been used they need to be disposed of if they have not already been lost before being completely used up. The main way the pens are disposed of is the trash. Many pens end up in the landfills. The energy that it takes to get it to the landfill is the amount of energy the garbage trucks use while they drive their routes picking up trash. For those pens that end up going missing, they are likely to end up in the landfill as well. Although many pens end up in the landfill, there is a more “ecological” solution to the disposal of cheap plastic pens. The solution to not having as many pens end up in the landfill is recycling. However, to recycle a plastic pen the parts must be dismantled and melted down. It takes a high amount of energy to separate the individual pieces of the pens assembly, not to mention the amount of toxins that are released into the ecosystem. Although recycling seems to be the solution to our disposal problems it is not necessarily the correct answer.
After studying the lifecycle of a BIC Cristal Ballpoint Pen, people can see that the statements that the company makes are not always true. This is a practice called “Green Washing”, where a company tries to appear more eco-friendly then they actually are. Although BIC tries to be “sustainable” there are certain points in the lifecycle where energy is wasted, such as during the manufacturing and disposal steps. There are multiple steps involved in the manufacturing of the pens that require varying amounts of energy. All items are designed and created which consume amounts of energy that people do not realize exist. Even an item as simple as a pen goes through multiple processes before it ends up in a consumer’s hand and continues after they are done using it. Energy processes do not just start and end with a consumer.
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November 30, 2016
Wastes and Emissions Produced Throughout the Life Cycle of a BIC Cristal Pen
The BIC Cristal is a low-cost, readily available pen that is often taken for granted. It’s available in Europe, North America, Central America, Oceania, South America, Africa and Asia, usually packaged in at least 3’s, often coming in packs or boxes of 10 or 12.
It was invented by Marcel Bich, who had originally been an ink maker for fountain pens.
Before the BIC Cristal, ballpoint pens already existed, and were readily in production. However, those pens were expensive, and unreliable, too. Their ink frequently leaked and clogged, leading Bich to develop a reliable and affordable alternative.
Today, the BIC Cristal remains one of the world’s best-selling pens. Its cost has remained low since its introduction in 1950, and it has always performed with relative reliability. Sadly, the Cristal’s low cost and ubiquity means that its construction is cheap, and the pen is often lost or thrown away rather than used up to completion and recycled. Most people also do not see the real cost of making this pen, whether it’s by the conflict-fueled tungsten mines of the Congo or harmful emissions from melting down polystyrene.
By examining the life cycle of a BIC Cristal ballpoint pen, we can determine just how many wastes and emissions are produced when creating, shipping, and disposing of such a “simple” product.
The transparent barrel of the BIC Cristal is made out of polystyrene, a thermal plastic that’s both see-through and cheap to manufacture. Polystyrene is chosen because it is cheap and transparent – but it’s also brittle, and, as such, is unsuitable to be used for a cap (the cap is made out of polypropylene, a more flexible plastic).
Sadly, when produced, polystyrene releases waste gas into the air in the form of chlorofluorocarbons. Chlorofluorocarbons are greenhouse gases – they heat up the Earth’s atmosphere when they’re released. Alarmingly, these CFC’s heat up Earth’s atmosphere 1200 times faster than carbon dioxide, making them a harmful greenhouse gas whose emitters should be carefully monitored and constrained. Contrary to popular belief, polystyrene can be recycled. The steps to recycle polystyrene are as follows:
1. Materials are shipped to a recycling plant and then inspected, in order to remove contamination.
2. A sorting process separates clean and dirty polystyrene. The dirty polystyrene will be washed.
3. The polystyrene is fed into a grinder, which processes it into “fluff”.
4. The fluff is melted using heat and friction, removing air (there’s a lot of it in styrofoam, which is also made of polystyrene).
5. The melted material is pushed into a cube using pressure. The resulting cube has small openings that are extruded into polystyrene strands. Those strands are then cooled and chopped into pellets.
6. The pellets are shipped away to be used in new products.
However, it’s usually cost-effective to just dispose of it, resulting in polystyrene-based products ending up in landfills where they won’t degrade for thousands of years. Also, most municipal recycling facilities won’t take in polystyrene, even though it’s easy to use for thermal recycling.
The BIC company obtains its plastics (for this paper, only polystyrene and polypropylene are important) from China, the Netherlands, France (the company’s home country) and the United States. Interestingly, the BIC website claims that 98.09% of the company’s intra-company transport is operated without air flight. This means that most of its products are transported via land or sea, cutting down on the amount of possible greenhouse gas emissions, as air travel would emit far, far more greenhouse gases than land and sea combined.
The ink tube, cap, and plug on the back of a BIC Cristal are all made out of polypropylene, which is a more durable plastic than polystyrene. Polypropylene is an opaque, flexible thermal plastic that is commonly used in many plastic products. Polypropylene is easier to recycle than polystyrene—as a result, it’s slightly more eco-friendly than polystyrene.
In 2010, the U.S. alone produced 5 billion pounds of polypropylene! Even though it’s easier to recycle polypropylene than polystyrene, it’s one of the least-recycled post-consumer plastics. Polypropylene packaging has a short lifespan. Therefore, most of it ends up as waste in landfills instead of being recycled. The EPA estimates that 20% of solid waste produced has some kind of plastic in it, including polypropylene. Like other plastics, products made using polypropylene degrade slowly in landfills. When burned, thermoplastics such as polypropylene can give off dioxins and vinyl chloride. The recycling process for polypropylene is essentially the same as polystyrene, but, thankfully, polypropylene is more likely to be recycled as it tends to be a bit more cost-effective than polystyrene (polystyrene is typically found in the form of packing peanuts, while polypropylene is used for things such as plastic bowls).
The pen’s tip (the part that holds the ballpoint) is made of brass, which is an alloy of copper & zinc.
Copper is one of the world’s most-mined minerals because of how useful it is, but its extraction is known for causing severe ecological stress. This is because copper is commonly mined through open-pit mining. Open-pit mining is one of the most common forms of mining. It damages the environment a lot because strategic minerals can only be found in small concentrations, meaning that a lot of ore needs to be mined. Open-pit mining can affect water tables and leach acidic mining chemicals into aquifers.
Sadly, there are environmental hazards in every single step in the open-pit mining process.
Hardrock mining can expose rock that had previously been unexposed for geological eras. Those rocks expose radioactive elements, asbestos and asbestos-like minerals, and metallic dust when crushed. When copper is separated from rock, the resulting rock slurries (mixes of pulverized rock & liquid) can leak toxic and radioactive elements into bedrock if they aren’t contained.
The ballpoint of a BIC Cristal pen is made out of tungsten carbide.
Originally, the ballpoint was made with stainless steel, but tungsten carbide was chosen to replace it due to its durability and strength.
Tungsten carbide is very strong—as such, it’s often used for industrial drill bits and armor-piercing ammunition.
Sadly, tungsten is considered to be a conflict mineral. This is because it has been used in armed disputes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 50% of their tungsten mines are controlled by the military. China, Russia, the Congo, and Bolivia are the greatest producers of tungsten right now, meaning that BIC has to import tungsten from these regions. Thus, BIC wastes a lot of energy in order to obtain the tungsten they need in order to make their ballpoints. That’s not where the wasted energy ends – if even one out of 5000 ballpoints are deformed, all 5000 of them in the batch are discarded! Thankfully, the tungsten industry encourages recycling, as it preserves raw materials. An estimated 25% of the overall supply of tungsten is from tungsten-bearing scrap. But in the U.S. and Europe, the recycling rate for tungsten is about 50%. This makes tungsten a secondary raw material, but it’s currently impossible to find out where recycled tungsten has come from. Therefore, recycled tungsten could have originated from conflict mines.
As for harmful waste products produced by tungsten, its potential environmental effects are actually unknown as of yet. However, dissolution of tungsten powder has been found to acidify soils, and tungsten powder in soil can also cause plants and red worms to die.
While most people won’t ever consider them, a surprisingly large amount of resources go into producing the ubiquitous BIC Cristal. It’s quite shocking, really, since a pack of 10 pens will typically set you back just a dollar or two. I think that, especially because these pens are usually lost or broken before running out of ink, there’s not much consideration that consumers have for this lowly product. However, the materials required to make a “simple” BIC Cristal span the globe, just like the amount of countries in which you can buy them. As such, there’s a hidden cost behind the cheap pricing that’s always tacked onto these pens. From polypropylene cap to brass tip, there’s a rich history behind these pens, and not just the one left behind by Marcel Bich.
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