Is There Such a Thing as Eco-Friendly Crayons?

Q: With an 8-year-old and a 14-year-old going back to school, I’ve bought enough school supplies this past month to fill a yacht — everything from pencils to three-ring binders to locker shelves.

This year, I’ve really tried to go green when it comes to my school supply shopping. There will be no more brown bag lunches since I got my kids reusable lunch totes (and reusable containers for inside), and I bought all recycled paper products (index cards, filler paper and notebooks). One thing I do wonder about though as I wind down my shopping spree: Is there such a thing as eco-friendly crayons for my little one?

A: Ahhh, crayons. I absolutely love crayons. I was one of those kids in high school that kept a package of Crayolas in my backpack and shamelessly took them out to doodle during fifth period. What better satisfaction than spending every day for an entire semester creating masterpiece after masterpiece on the pages of my Trapper Keeper?

Back in 2000, there was a huge hullabaloo surrounding a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article that claimed asbestos had been found in three major brands of crayons. Parents everywhere were, to put it mildly, freaking out. The Consumer Products Safety Commission did its own independent report later that year and found that yes, trace amounts of asbestos were found in Crayola crayons and Dixon-Ticonderoga crayons, but that “the amount of asbestos is so small, it is scientifically insignificant.” Even so, they asked crayon manufacturers to reformulate their crayons as an extra precaution, and crayon manufacturers willingly complied. All’s well that ends well, right?

Not so fast, amigo. You see, crayons have quite a negative environmental impact once they’re thrown away. In the spirit of going back to school, here’s a little chemistry lesson for ya: Crayons are made from paraffin wax. Paraffix wax is derived from petroleum. And paraffin wax can take years, even decades to decompose in a landfill. Think about all those worn-down crayons your kids have gone through. Now multiply that by all the kids in his class, or his school. That’s a lot of non-decomposing crayons to consider!

Luckily, the National Crayon Recycle Program, started by an ambitious Luann Foty in 1993, will accept any and every type of used crayon and recycle them into new ones. Their new crayons, called Crazy Crayons, come in all sorts of fun shapes and sizes. Over the past 17 years, she’s prevented over 55,000 pounds of crayons from ending up in landfills. And she provides great resources for schools or youth groups to start a crayon recycling program of their own. She even recycles the crayon wrappers into “fire starters” that you can purchase simply by paying for shipping costs.

Of course, if you want to go green from the start, there are alternatives to traditional crayons, albeit a bit more expensive than your grocery store variety. One alternative is soy crayons. Soy crayons were invented by two resourceful Purdue students in 1993 as an entry into a soybean utilization contest. They are completely biodegradable, and I find that soy crayons are actually brighter than traditional crayons. Not only that, but soy crayons made by Crayon Rocks actually improve your child’s handwriting grip. How’s that for multi-tasking? Saving the environment and improving your child’s fine motor skills all at the same time!

Another alternative to traditional crayons are beeswax crayons, like the ones made by Stockmar. Beeswax crayons, like soy crayons, are biodegradable and made from completely renewable resources.

So there you have it — yes, there is such a thing as eco-friendly crayons, but if you can’t spend the extra money to buy them and have to buy traditional crayons, at least make sure that come the end of the school year (I know it seems like a very, very long time away) those nubs and stubs don’t end up in the garbage.

— Chanie

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.