Environmental Impact of Kids’ Crafts

kids art project with lots of glue and cardboard

A thoughtful post from me, in honor of Earth Day….

There’s something that troubles me in designing class projects. I am a huge believer in hands-on learning for kids – building projects and doing crafts where they create things with their hands.

But I also try to be sensitive to the impact of my actions on the environment, and try hard to Reduce as much as I can what materials I take in to my life, Reuse as much as I can, and Recycle what I can’t reuse, so that I’m throwing as little into a landfill as possible.

And yet, in my class, we go through an awful lot of craft sticks, rubber bands, plastic straws, pompoms, wine corks and more, both in our planned activities and in our free play “Creation Station”. I try to encourage parents to dispose of “take-home” crafts in as environmentally friendly a way as possible. But many craft supplies can’t be reused when they’re slathered in glue and stuck to lots of other miscellaneous materials. And even if they could be separated, some might be able to be re-used, but many can’t, and many of those items are not recyclable, so go into the trash.

On Pinterest, you’ll find tons of cool craft ideas using “materials from the recycling bin” like this cool hovercraft using a CD and a water bottle lid (the pull-up to open type).  Those work great at home with a kid or two. But when I teach 40 kids a week, it’s hard for me to come up with 40 CD’s and 40 lids (yes, I could buy blank CDs from Amazon, and yes, I could choose to buy a lot of water bottles, but that would be wrong!) So there’s some ideas I just hold on to for a long time to see if I happen to stumble upon materials I can use. (For example, when a co-worker mentioned they had been cleaning out old obsolete software and had a ton of old CD’s to throw away. Or at a party where they were using plastic Solo cups or plastic spoons, and I asked if I could take them home and wash and re-use them (for tower building and spoon catapults) rather than having them go in the trash.)

We have tried asking parents to bring things in for our “creation station” free build area, but unfortunately, they’d sometimes bring in things that hadn’t been washed, or we’d end up with way too many TP tubes or other challenges. So mostly the teachers stock that station with their own recycling / trash. (Whenever I get plastic spoons, or forks, or bowls or whatever, I bring them home and throw them in the dishwasher. About 90% of them come out looking like they did on the way in and I can re-use them. 10% melt into strange shapes, and I toss those.)

I have asked parents to bring in specific supplies for projects (like big cardboard boxes for cars, or small boxes for robots, or water bottles for Cartesian divers or 2 liter bottle for jet packs) and that’s been more successful. I used to just describe what they should bring, but I discovered it helps to include a photo of what the project will be, so it’s clear. (For example, for the divers, I had asked them to bring in small water or juice bottles, and one brought a plastic milk bottle – which was unfortunately opaque, and since the experiment requires being able to look at the diver inside the bottle, that just didn’t work.) I also discovered I need to be explicit about things like – water bottle WITH A LID, or 2 liter bottles that are clean and DRY (so when we put things inside, they don’t get wet!)

I’ve also asked church members for things (old metal keys or magazines or newspapers for building trusses.)

My new goal is to reduce straw use both for my drinks and in my classes. Seattle banned plastic straws last year, but they’re still out in full force in the restaurants in the suburbs. I would love to tell you I’ve gone straw-free. But I really strongly prefer drinking soda through a straw. So, I got these stainless steel straws with these silicon tips and I carry them in my bag, and mostly use those. (I also use them as coffee stirrers, which saves the planet from me using a whole lot of wood stirrers and plastic stirrers!) But still, plastic straws sometimes come to me. Like I go through a drive-through and they’ve put them in the bag and I don’t notice till I pull away. Or I forget my straw. When a plastic straw comes to me, I take it home, and wash it in the dishwasher (no, they don’t melt – even when they’re on the bottom rack in the silverware basket, they always come through just fine… that’s why these puppies never bio-degrade!)  Then I take the straw to class to add to the craft supplies.

Some people recommend using natural materials like rocks, pine cones and so on rather than plastics, and I do where I can, but then we also get into interesting issues like – this perfectly biodegradable pine cone now has non-biodegradable googly eyes and foam stickers stuck to it… Yes, probably better than plastic, but still a dilemma.

What do you do to reduce the environmental impact of your kids’ craft projects?



  1. You’re right on the money, Janelle! One of the big ideas from the Makerspace Movement is to re-use materials. Instead of having each child make a hovercraft using CDs, how about putting out the CDs and seeing what children come up with? I know this goes against the grain of how we learned and were taught in school (and how to teach). And, I post flyers around the Children’s room for specific supplies needed. Maybe you can also advertise on the school website or Parent’s Backpack, too?


  2. I have a similar conundrum with outreach event “swag”. I hate all of the branded junk my kids bring home from local children’s events: pencils, lanyards, stress balls, cups, rulers, etc. So much of it just ends up in the trash but when I set up a table for my library we have a hard time enticing people to stop by without piles of free stuff. Bookmarks? Blah. So what is the answer? I could just go with a giant candy bowl I suppose but I’d love to find something that says “Library!” but also has value (or at least doesn’t contribute to the landfill.) Any suggestions?


  3. […] When we visited, they were doing shrinky dinks inspired by the glass art of Dale Chihuly. They had clear containers made from #6 plastic that the kids colored on with Sharpies, then put in a toaster oven so they curled up, then glued them to a CD as a display stand. This was a super fun project, and would be a great way of reclaiming items from the recycling bin or trash. (Clean takeout containers, and obsolete CD-Roms.) But they were using all fresh consumer goods, which isn’t ideal. (I’m a huge fan of hands-on kids’ projects, but also try to figure out ways to minimize the environmental impact of kids’ crafts.) […]


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