Q: I recently sent my firstborn off to kindergarten and I had the chance to tour his classroom. The first thing I noticed when walking in? The crayons. Crayons everywhere. Crayons in baskets, crayons in cups, crayons in shoeboxes. No exaggeration, crayon containers covered almost every surface of the room. And that smell … well, here’s hoping that my son doesn’t come home each day reeking like a block of wax. But I digress.


From what I understand, most crayons are safe/nontoxic (although I’d prefer not to see my son eat them or stick them up his nose), but this experience has left me wondering how safe for the environment they are. I assume that regular wax crayons are made from petroleum-based paraffin, which doesn’t thrill me. Are there any environmentally friendly crayons out there? Although I probably can’t do anything to replace the crayon stockpile in his classroom, I’d like to possibly invest in some eco-crayons for use at home.


Crayons on the brain,


Julianne — Guerneville, Calif.

Hey Julianne,

Yikes! After reading this letter I experienced an intense phantom crayon smell attack. Nothing like the stench of kids’ art supplies to bring you back. Anyways, you’re right, “regular” crayons are made from artificial pigments and paraffin wax, a non-renewable, petroleum byproduct. Crayon manufacturers uphold extremely stringent safety and toxicity standards so it’s fine not to worry about them harming your son in the event that he “accidentally” chomps on one (fun fact: the glue that binds the label to the crayon is a cornstarch/water mixture) but harming Mother Nature … that’s a different story.

Before I dive into alternatives to paraffin wax-based crayons, I should point out the eco-efforts that the crayon company, Crayola, has instituted. As the company’s “Green” page states: “Crayola may make virtually every color under the sun, but its current favorite color is green.” That said, Crayola seems to take environmental responsibility seriously and, in fact, starting this past summer, the company opened a 15-acre solar farm at its Easton, Pa., HQ. The 26,000 solar panels that make up the farm will provide enough electricity to make a billion crayons a year. Also, the paper labels for the crayons are made from reforested paper and excess wax used in the manufacturing process is melted back down and reused again.

On the topic of excess wax, I’d recommend looking into Crazy Crayons. They’re crafted from 100 percent recycled crayon “rejects” collected through a National Crayon Recycling program. According to the company, as of August 2010, over 55,000 pounds of unwanted crayons have been diverted from landfills (where they don’t exactly biodegrade) and turned into new crayons through this remarkable program.

If you’d rather do away with paraffin crayons altogether, there are biodegradable crayons made from renewable resources out there but take heed, they’re not as cheap as the traditional ones. For example, a 16-pack of Stockmar Beeswax Stick Crayons will set you back almost $30. More affordable are Prang’s nontoxic soybean oil-based crayons that were introduced in 1997 by parent company Dixon Ticonderoga. Then there’s Clementine Art, an eco-conscious natural kids’ art supply outfit out of Boulder that makes a line of Natural Crayons made from soybean oil and beeswax (among other natural ingredients and plant and mineral-based pigments). One major caveat with these: a pack comes with only six shades, so if Junior’s a color queen, you may want to supplement his crayon stash with some other options.

So here’s my ultimate advice, Julianne: Given their eco-initiatives and commitment to safety, go with what you know. And that means Crayola. However, make sure when a crayon meets its stubby end, hold on to it and make sure it’s recycled through a program like the one mentioned above. And on special occasions (an Earth Day art project, perhaps?), I’d try out some non-paraffin choices if your budget allows. Hope your son creates plenty of fridge-worthy masterpieces this year.

— Matt

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Photo credits: Inset image: .robbie/Flickr; MNN homepage photo: L. Henderson/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Do non-petroleum-based crayons exist?
Yes, alternatives are out there, but Matt Hickman's going to stick with the old reliable brand.