Are Horse Parts Really Used to Make Glue or Is That Just an Icky Rumor?

bottle of elmer's glue tipped over

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Q: I’m a newbie elementary school teacher with a rather odd question. Last week, I attempted to lead my class in a Valentine's Day crafting free-for-all. Construction paper, glitter and all the fixin’s were distributed. The final items passed around were little, innocuous bottles of Elmer’s Glue.

Mari, one of my more precocious students (I also suspect her parents are members of the local 4H club), took one look at her bottle and turned as white as its contents. She then shrieked like a banshee, “this stuff is made from dead horses!” and started weeping. Dead silence followed. Then came a chorus of cries, snickers, boisterous naying and the kind of pandemonium only a room full of 8-year-olds can generate. I reassured the kids that this was not true at all but it was too late ... Mari’s declaration had sparked a mini glue revolt and I scrapped the project for the day.

The thing is, I’m well-aware of the old adage about “sending retired horses to the glue factory,” but I always considered it a silly saying. I know that gelatin has animal ingredients in it so I’m curious as to if there’s any truth behind this. Are there horse — or any other animal — ingredients in Elmer’s and other glues?

Trying to be a friend to Mr. Ed,

-- Wendy, Rancho Mirage, Calif.

hnd squeezes Elmer's glue onto hair clip for crafts

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Hey Wendy,

Yikes. Kids these days, eh? Little Mari (sounds like she has a knack for causing a ruckus ... sorry couldn’t resist) although on to something, is slightly misinformed. Just be sure not to serve her any Jell-O in the near future or your next class speaker may be a representative from PETA.

Glue, historically, is indeed made from collagen taken from animal parts, particularly horse hooves and bones. In fact, the word “collagen” comes from the Greek kolla, glue. This practice has been going on for thousands and thousands of years; it’s not the invention of some enterprising farmer named Elmer who had a few about-to-be-put-down horses on his hands, a knack for organic chemistry and a vat of boiling water. So, yes, as unpleasant to think about as it is, glue can contain animal-based ingredients (nowadays it’s mostly cattle hooves). Adhesive aficionados seem to gravitate towards fish and hide glues. But honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to say that there are many horse-slaughtering glue operations still out there since synthetics are so much cheaper and effective.

beauty shot of a hot glue gun with crafts

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

So what about that bottle of Elmer’s that sent Mari into a tizzy? According to the company, no horse or any other animal is (currently) harmed in the making of their product. Elmer’s Glues, like many commercial “white” glues these days, are 100 percent chemical-based, which, depending on how you look at it, is worse than reusing the body parts of dead ungulates.

According to the the Elmer’s website:

Elmer's Glues are chemical based. They are made or formulated from chemicals which are synthesized (created by man). These chemicals were originally obtained or manufactured from petroleum, natural gas and other raw materials found in Nature. The exact formula and specific ingredients used in making Elmer's products are considered proprietary information, therefore, we cannot share those with you.

I’m not quite sure how to tell you to proceed with this, Wendy. An informative class field trip to a local rendering plant is out of the question and I wouldn’t sit down Mari down for a chat about the environmental ills of petrochemicals. I also can’t imagine a childhood without good, old-fashioned Elmer’s.

hands use a hot glue gun on birthday card

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Sadly, there aren’t a ton of non-synthetic, vegan glues on the market, at least ones that are classroom-friendly. There’s nontoxic, made-in-Italy Coccoina Adhesive Glue Sticks but they can be pricey and hard to come by. Plus, they smell like marzipan so any students already prone to paste eating might be tempted to snack on the craft supplies.

I’d say just give it a second try. Kids are fickle and unless Mari really loves horses, she may have already totally forgotten about it.

— Matt