low waste art

painting outside vin kids

painting the scene outdoors

Hello friends!  I received a question about art on my instagram regarding this, “What do you do about art supplies?  I’ve already gotten on board with switching most of our household to lower waste alternatives, but with the kids I just can’t bear to restrict their imagination just to limit waste.  Do you do art?  How do you get around this?”  

First, let me say that I love art and view it as an essential way for kids to make sense of the world.  I think for them, art is a way they can communicate thoughts, learning, patterns and observations before they can put together words, write or read.  I grew up around art (my grandma is a wonderful painter) and I always have enjoyed creating my own and viewing others art.  My approach here is two fold; try to prioritize materials that already come package free, and also to not stress if I truly need something that does come in plastic.  I like what Ariana of Paris To Go said- I’m paraphrasing and butchering here- but essentially, that if you truly need and use something, it’s not going to waste because its important to you, and necessary, and serves a purpose.  I broadly view art supplies like this too.


However, there are some things we just don’t use, because I don’t personally think they’re necessary for kids to make art- like markers, for instance.  I try to weigh the life cycle of the product against the amount of fun, value, or essential quality it has.  For us, markers just don’t cut it.  Their life in this house was never very long- lids always being lost, pens dried out or smashed into frayed dull points.

Instead, we use colored pencils, crayons, pastels, watercolor crayons, watercolor pencils, watercolor trays (we buy refill tins similar to THESE instead of a whole new palette).  Or I buy metal watercolor tubes which generally stretch longer and are sold loose.   Most of these supplies come loose or in a recyclable paper package, and you can compost the shavings/nubs left over.  Leftover over bits of crayons can get melted down into new ones in a silicone mold.  THESE highlighter pencils work great and you don’t have to worry about the caps not being put back on and drying out.


Refillable fountain pens are great alternatives to ballpoint pens- and the ink comes in a glass jar.  You can also use refillable fine tip pens like these. We have lots of brushes from a lifetime of me painting.  Some are plastic.  I let the kids use real brushes because if you’ve ever tried to use “kids” brushes you know how frustrating it is when little hairs come off on your paint!  I trust my kids using real items, and they generally respect the tools more when they are real.  When brushes get very frayed, we use them to paint water on the sidewalk, which is always a fun activity, especially on a hot day- watching how fast it disappears!

I also try to focus on purchasing locally here to reduce impact that way.  If you go to a local art shop, usually they have lots of loose supplies for purchase, like natural rubber erasers, metal sharpeners, pencils, papers, and more.  If you’re local, The Paint Chip in Davis and University Art in Sacramento are both great resources.  I always buy sketchbooks/watercolor paper that are spiral bound with paper covers.  That way, all the parts can get pulled apart and recycled or reused separately.

Some things, like play dough, I make from scratch (recipe HERE).  But other things, like paint and glue, were just too difficult or a pain to make our own versions of.  They simply don’t last long enough to be on hand when inspiration strikes I’ve found.  But there are plenty of resources online to make your own.

play dough

homemade play dough.  I leave it un-colored for more open ended play.

As far as tape and glue, we just use masking tape which is compostable, or brown kraft paper tape- also compostable.  I don’t often have a use for glue BUT being honest here, somehow glue sticks from school and well meaning family often make their way into our home.  I recycle the empties through Terracycle– they also have an art supplies recycling box- it’s not cheap but for me it’s worth it.

We have a bin in the kids playroom/ library room where we store old magazines, boxes, paper used on one side, cardboard tubes, bits and bobs of ribbon, used foil/wire/twist ties, and other clean recyclables or items that might normally be trashed.  The kids then have a resource of things to draw from when they want to create something.  This also encourages more creativity and open play.  We also store such things as interesting shells, leaves, rocks, twigs, dried flowers, pine cones, acorns, really anything they pick up during walks or trips.  Old art projects also get broken down for reuse here.

Also in the line of reuse, I often offer previous days artwork back to them, simply asking “Are you finished with this or still working on it?” and many times they are excited to revisit the piece and add to it- often drawing on more detail, adding paint or other components.  Again, I feel this reinforces a deeper look at the art and more thoughtful exploration versus just paint, new sheet, move on.  Old art can also be cut up for collages or become a background for plays, puppets, or writing.

Kids art zero waste

sketching nature observations at the arboretum

If you’re looking for canvases, you can often find them at thrift stores and simply paint over them to be used again.  You can also buy loose canvas and build the frame for it.  Our local thrift store also has a craft section that delights my kids- with lots of odd supplies and materials.  Often stopping by there can provide what’s needed for a project!

Do you have any tips or tricks for less waste art that I didn’t mention?  Leave them below for me and others to learn from!

4 thoughts on “low waste art

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