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?