I haven’t written much about waste reduction here. I’m constantly mentally drafting and abandoning blog posts on waste topics, and I never really feel like they fit in on the Waste Nothing blog, as that’s for news about the website itself. So let’s see how posting on my own blog works.
The short summary of the below is that Crayola successfully responded to a public demand to reduce waste, but could have done far better.
Some students at an elementary school in California came together on an initiative to get Crayola to institute some form of producer responsibility; to have a program where they take back old markers and reuse or recycle them. The effort including a petition which gained a lot of attention, but also included videos and hand-written letters by the students.
Crayola competitor Dixon Ticonderoga was smart and fast enough to positively respond to this first, with their Prang Power Recycling Program. You collect a large number of used markers, they send you a paid shipping label, and you mail them the markers. Their website said nothing at all about what happens with the markers after that, so I asked them and they responded the next day. It turns out to be a typical recycling process: washed, shredded, remelted into pellets, and sold to make products such as “paving stones, benches, or picnic tables.” It should be noted that almost all plastic recycling is better labeled as downcycling, which is to say that they aren’t remade into the same product again, they are made into a lower-quality product.
Crayola eventually got their act together. Most likely they started to think about it seriously as soon as the petition started getting media coverage, but it takes time to develop a whole new program. Crayola’s PR (er, communications) people clearly had a hand and put a lot of effort into the launch of ColorCycle. They announced it on Earth Day, they had a logo and a colourful website, teacher lesson plans about recycling (generally, not their program), and a pre-written letter to parents about how great the program is.
Just as with Dixon Ticonderoga, Crayola will pay the shipping to have the markers sent back to them. The online signup to participate is geared entirely towards schools, and there is no way (at least yet) to send in markers not via a school. It’s also (a coincidence I’m sure) a great way for Crayola to collect contact information that they can send marketing material to later on. I would suggest that Crayola come up with a way for individuals to return markers as well, perhaps via arts and craft stores.
So what happens to the markers? Crayola says they are transformed into a “clean-burning liquid fuel,” but a little detective work reveals more detail. The company that processes the markers is JBI, Inc., known by their branding as Plastic2Oil. It’s a relatively new technology, and Crayola is one of their first large-scale partners.
The process results in several products: more than half is classified as #6 fuel, another 20% is naphtha, about 15% “off-gas” and the remainder is Petroleum coke. It seems to be the #6 fuel that Crayola describes as the diesel that is the final product, although it is interesting to note that this fuel is dark brown (see the rightmost beaker in this photo), unlike the cleaner-looking transparent yellow shown in the beaker on Crayola’s website. The off-gas is used to power the machinery, and the other products are sold. Number six fuel is apparently used mostly for generators.
Although Crayola only talks about used markers, JBI says that they also take “off-spec” markers and crayons, as in leftovers from Crayola factories that were unfit for sale for one reason or another. I’m not sure why crayons would be used, as they’re made of wax, but what do I know.
Is making plastic into oil a good thing? For a definitive answer to that you would need to do a comprehensive life-cycle assessment and depending on the boundaries of the problem statement, that can still be quite subjective. My presumption is that making plastic into other plastic will almost always be the better option; JBI really exists because not all plastic can be easily recycled into other plastic of reasonable quality, often because many kinds of plastic are mixed together and difficult to separate, or because of non-plastic contamination. Given that crayola markers are made of a uniform material (other than the ink and tip, which can be removed), I think that Crayola could do better here. But I would also say that they could be doing much better.
A Better Option
Crayola announced their new program to much fanfare, and the children at the schools that started the initiative were overjoyed that their personal effort had changed practices at a large corporation, as well they should be. Take a look at the Crayola Marker Recycling Project video made by the students showing the project from beginning to end.
This program will likely remain for some time, without Crayola making significant changes. While ColorCycle is probably better than throwing the markers in the landfill, Crayola could have taken the opportunity to make a real change, instead of just tacking a new program onto their existing process.
Without getting into a long rant, the 3Rs are reduce, reuse, and recycle, in that order. Most people tend to think of recycling=green=recycling, but I prefer to describe recycling as the second-worst option (after burying or burning, aka landfill or incineration). Not generating waste in the first place is far superior to reusing something, and reusing something is far superior than the complex industrial process of recycling, which still involves transportation, factories, etc.
So what could Crayola have done? They could have redesigned their product to create less waste to begin with. This isn’t a new idea, and lots of companies and products already do this to some extent. To get an idea of what can be done, take a look at the ideas on The Disappearing Package.
I’m no industrial designer, but here is my crack at a redesign. Instead of white plastic markers, with printing and a cap of the marker colour, use only clear plastic tubes for the markers, all printed with Crayola’s logo in black. The lids would all be the same, and could be clear, any colour of plastic, or even metal. The colour of the marker would be seen through the tube, by the ink capsule. Alternately, the marker tube could be made of metal, with the cap being clear.
Instead of selling entirely new markers, Crayola could sell just the ink capsules, which you could buy individually and replace. The video produced by the students does in fact suggest to Crayola that they provide instructions on how to safely remove the ink and tip from a marker, and shows one of the students actually doing so.
Why did I suggest metal? Because metal is more durable than plastic, and can be recycled (not just downcycled) an infinite number of times.
I’m glad Crayola decided to respond positively to this request, but I urge them not to think of this program as the final answer. Redesigning the product is a much more complex change than adding a disposal program, but is the better option, especially in the long run.
I should also mention that TerraCycle has long had a writing instruments recycling program which includes markers of any brand, although it is financially supported by Newell Rubbermaid (Sharpie and other brands). TerraCycle’s programs are similar to the others, where they pay the shipping. Writing instruments are apparently downcycled into plastic storage bins.