The Environmental Impact of Library Crafts and STEM Programs

Library Crafts and the Environment

Children’s crafts are a regular part of library programming, whether they occur as part of story time, as an independent art activity, or as part of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) initiative.  They promote creativity, allow children to express themselves, and help children practice fine motor skills, among other benefits. Yet I have yet to see any librarians talk seriously about the potential environmental impact of using so many straws, cups, pom poms, googly eyes, and more on a weekly or even daily basis.  We can assume many of the craft items being used are not recyclable (especially if painted on, glued, or taped) and that, even if they are,  many patrons are not recycling these crafts at home.  So the question is: should libraries continue to plan craft programs that could hurt the environment?

One of the most concerning developments for the impact of library programs on the environment may be the push for libraries to become technology centers and to promote STEM programs.  Cheap programs often recommend the use of straws, which can be used to build bridges (to see how much weight they can hold), to build towers (to see which designs are the most stable), to build boats (to see how much weight they can hold and still float), to build Rube Goldberg machines, and to do any other number of engineering experiments. Straws can be found at the dollar store, they are sturdy, and they are versatile.  And so they are beloved of those looking to stock Makerspaces on a small budget.

But we also know that straws, along with other plastics, are terrible for the environment.  The United Nations reports that,  “Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been incinerated, while the rest — 79% — has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.”  A 2015 study found that there were 7.5 million straws on America’s beaches and the United Nations reports that 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, where it eventually breaks down into microplastics that fish (and then humans) consume.  But it takes about 200 years for a plastic straw made of polypropylene to break down.  The UN warns that, “If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050.”  Libraries should consider carefully whether it is ethical to continue using plastic straws in their programs, since most of these straws are likely going to end up in a landfill or in the water, instead of being recycled.

Straws, however, are obviously not the only concern. Library crafts may use perler bead, made of plastic. They may use styrofoam cups, which can take hundreds of years to decompose.  They may, if brave, even use glitter, another microplastic that can accumulate in the oceans and in the stomachs of wildlife.  Indeed, unless libraries are consciously choosing to create programs using only biodegradable and recyclable (or recycled) materials, they are likely impacting the environment in a negative way, without even realizing it.

I appreciate the work libraries do in providing programs to communities and showing parents how they can create their own cheap art or STEM projects at home.  I do think, however, that it is time for libraries to reconsider some of the materials they are using, and whether taxpayer funds  might be able to go towards materials that are friendlier for the environment.

Do you think children’s crafts are an environmental concern?

10 thoughts on “The Environmental Impact of Library Crafts and STEM Programs

  1. Isobel Necessary says:

    I agree that this is something which needs to be addressed – hopefully as new, more environmentally sustainable materials are developed for manufacturing these will also become available for other uses like crafting and art materials. Is there a gap in the market maybe for an eco crafts company – or does anyone know of an existing business providing recyclable craft supplies?
    In the meantime, I would start with a glitter ban. It never sticks properly, is a nightmare to clean up, and is just microplastic. If shiny is required, tinfoil (recyclable in many places) might be a good alternative, as would reuseable metal stationery like paperclips.
    Collages don’t have to be glued down – arranging leaves and twigs on paper and then photographing them would mean the leaves can be put back where they were found, and there’s still a picture to email home or display via slideshow in the library.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      My guess is that, with many things, biodegradable options exist for many of the materials already being used, but they’re more expensive and libraries don’t have the budget. It’s the same with tons of products people use at home. You can buy more earth-friendly dish soap, trash bags, diapers, etc., but it’s going to cost tons more money. Libraries would just have to move entirely away from crafts that use any plastic or single-use materials at all, which would require a big commitment to doing it and lots of creativity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Isobel Necessary says:

        It’s such a shame when funding isn’t adequate to allow the library to serve its users best. Hopefully materials costs will come down over time – and in the meantime, there’s something to be said for making a few changes even if you can’t do everything in a greener way.

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    • Krysta says:

      Glitter is soo pretty! But I have come to accept that it’s terrible for the environment, so I haven’t bought any more. Hopefully safe alternatives will one day be mainstream.

      I love your idea of the nature collages! That’s a great way to bring some STEM into an art project, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Grab the Lapels says:

    I hadn’t thought of this topic because I have no involvement with children’s programming, nor do I have children. However, you’re right about there being loads of plastic involved; I see it when I walk around my own library, which has a children’s section in the open and not off in a sequestered space.

    I would think libraries would lean toward reusable-at-the-library materials to save on waste and cost: sand, wooden blocks, popsicle sticks, water play, etc. I know some of these things can be messy, but once you’re eating microplastic you’re pretty much a hot mess anyway.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think art projects at the library just became expected at some point years ago and now it’s hard to break away when librarians assume parents really want some craft to take home and show off. But I think doing activities at the library with reusbable materials would be a change no one would really fight. And I think art projects could be done with friendlier materials like paper, popsicle sticks, etc. instead of plastic straws or cups and so forth. I imagine budget costs lead to the purchasing of cheap plastic materials, but I think it’s worth investing in other items that could stay at the library, as you say. How many parents really want more stuff coming into the house, anyway?

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      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I know my sister-in-law, who has four children, has a hard time knowing when it’s okay to throw away work her kids have done. Four kids x hundreds of drawings = a lot of stuff building up at their house. I think parents would appreciate a project the kid could do, maybe take a photo, and then leave the project at the library because it is a reusable activity.

        Liked by 1 person

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