Green Back-to-School Supplies: Part 1 – Pens, Pencils, Crayons, Markers

Kids eat crayons. They chew on pencils. They sniff markers. And pens? Sure, kids use them for writing – on their skin, not necessarily paper.

In other words, as weird as it may sound, you need to treat the tools kids use to compose or color the same way you'd treat the food they eat: with attention to the ingredients they're made from and the impact they're going to have on your kids' health.

That means looking for supplies free of lead-based pigments, synthetic fragrances, solvents like methyl alcohol and toluene, formaldehyde, and other nasty chemicals you'd never serve as part of a meal or snack. Here are links to responsible supplies that won't make your kids sick when they do take a bite or decide to paint a Picasso on their arm.

Pens – Pens cross the environmental line in two ways. Their ink usually contains chemicals that have no human health benefit; and they're usually made from throwaway plastic. In fact, a pen is one of those school supplies that subliminally teaches kids it's ok to waste, since we're so used to buying them in packs of 10 or 20 and tossing them into the trash even before they're completely used up.

Fortunately, DBA Pens have come to the rescue. The DBA 98 is 98% biodegradable, made in the USA using wind power, and filled with an ink made from water, nontoxic pigments, vegetable-based glycerin, and sodium benzoate, a food-grade preservative.

A decent alternative is a refillable pen, like the ones we sell in our Amazon store. While I can't vouch for the safety of the ink, at least a refillable reduces plastic waste. Plus, it's easy to find refillables at most office supply stores.

Pencils – Fortunately, most pencils kids use today are made of graphite, not the more dangerous "lead" that they're commonly described as. The most eco-friendly pencils are also made from recycled paper, wood, or cardboard. (NOTE: Some pencils are being made from recycled tires, but consumer reviews thus far indicate that they're not easy to sharpen or use.) Given the fact that a pencil can be used almost completely, and can be more easily recycled than plastic in some communities, it generates less waste than a pen or marker. If kids have an option, using a pencil is better than a pen. Using a reusable mechanical pencil, which replaces the "lead" but not the entire pencil, is a good option for older kids; there's no environmental benefit to using a throwaway mechanical pencil.

Crayons – I'm a big fan of crayons made from beeswax or soy, rather than the usual petroleum-based paraffin. The colors and texture are rich, and they pose no health or environmental threats to the kids who use them.

Markers – Look for markers whose low- or no-toxicity has been certified by the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Even then, give markers the "sniff" test. If you take off the cap and find the odor overwhelming, don't use the marker, and definitely don't give it to your child: chances are, it contains xylene, toluene or other chemicals that cause nausea, headaches and in some cases have been linked to cancer (why they're still allowed in any kind of marker or product is beyond me!). Choose water-soluble, no VOC markers if you can find them, or colored pencils as highlighters.

Paints – When buying kids' paints, look for no- or low-voc, water-based products, preferably certified non-toxic by an independent third party and made in the U.S. Some good choices:

 - Nature-of-Art's certified non-toxic, water-based acrylic paints. Here's an additional link to everything you want to know about nontoxic paints.

-Eco-Kids Natural Plant Dye Fingerpaint, made in the U.S.A

-Clementine Art Natural Paint


Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Give this "make your own fingerpaint" recipe a try (and let me know how you like it, ok?).


Want More? Shop Our Amazon Store.

We've compiled links to these and other eco-friendly school supplies on our "Back to School" store on Amazon (NOTE: we earn a small commission on purchases here that help pay our research and writing costs.) Have we missed a safe product you love? Let us know.


Related Posts:

Check Out Maggie's Organic for Back-to-School Fashions

Taming the Back-to-School Shopping Beast

Students Start Food Fight So They Can Have Reusable Lunch Trays

Going Back to School? Go Green to Save Hundreds of Dollars

Lunch Boxes Should be Safe and Environmentally Friendly

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13 Responses to Green Back-to-School Supplies: Part 1 – Pens, Pencils, Crayons, Markers

  1. plumbing October 16, 2011 at 4:50 am #

    There are school supplies which are eco-friendly and safe for kids to use.

  2. radii supras October 22, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

  3. Clark Adams November 10, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Companies should make sure that school supplies are free of chemicals and lead. The importance of safety cannot be emphasized enough, especially when it comes to children.

  4. Back to school supplies December 29, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Great ideas, I had no idea that school supplies could be “green.” I’ll have to remember that for next year.

  5. office furniture nyc January 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    More and more mothers are making the switch from harmful school supplies to eco friendly, kid safe ones. Kudos to those who support this advocacy!

  6. router bits January 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    This is a good idea. I hope that a lot of people will support this kind of advocacy. Let’s start using eco-friendly tools and products not only for our children but also for our mother earth.

  7. Diane MacEachern January 2, 2012 at 10:29 am #


  8. Jordan Pas Cher March 11, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    Je vais recommander à mes amis de lire ceci. Je suis tout à fait sûr qu’ils vont apprendre beaucoup de choses de nouveau ici que quiconque.

  9. New Mexico Walls Tanya April 26, 2012 at 1:41 am #

    Parents should be aware of the points you have given here! I think we’re fortunate that the industry has shifted to less toxic and more recyclable materials. 🙂

  10. Belle Thomson October 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Awesome blog and useful information. We always buy beeswax crayons for our children. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Diane MacEachern October 15, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    Glad to hear it, Belle!

  12. Rach January 10, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    What about colored pencils? are they toxic at all? what are alternatives? thank you

    • Diane January 12, 2016 at 11:21 am #

      Your best bet is to look for colored pencils that are lead-free and also free of heavy metals and pigments. Choose products that are certified child-safe, or simply opt for crayons made from beeswax or soy.

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