Go Recycled & Non-Toxic: Green Up Your Arts & Crafts

Whether you’re a professional artist, a hobbyist or just like to make crafts with your kids every now and then, if you’re environmentally conscious you’ve probably wondered how you can make your creative activities greener. Arts and crafts can definitely be a bit hard on the environment if you’re not careful – there are a lot of toxic ingredients in those paints, glue, varnishes and other materials, not to mention all of the trash you end up throwing away.

With the holiday season coming up, a lot of people are gearing up to create hand-made cards, gifts, ornaments and other crafty things, so it’s a great time to brush up on some eco-friendly arts & crafts tips!

Use recycled, non-toxic and sustainable materials. This one is probably pretty obvious.  Stick with recycled paper and pencils and other environmentally responsible materials like hemp sketchbooks, non-toxic adhesives and bamboo paintbrushes.  Look for the ACMI-approved seal on paints, which indicates that they’re non-toxic.

Upcycle ‘junk’ into works of art.  Next time you start a project, think about the supplies you need and whether you can find them around the house, at the thrift store, on Freecycle, etc. Try making your own artist canvas by applying gesso to an old cotton or linen sheet.  Refinishing thrift-store frames can be a budget-friendly option as well.  There are a million and one opportunities to upcycle ‘junk’ into jewelry, décor and other items.

Make your own paintbrushes. Leslie of The Öko Box eco boutique demonstrates how on her blog, using a twig, human hair and a rubber band.  She also experiments with plant-based pigments, turning a bunch of poke berries growing in her yard into a lovely fuschia liquid that she used to paint a picture and even dye an old shower curtain.

Don’t throw away scraps of paper and fabric.  Most types of paper and natural fabrics like cotton, silk, linen and wool can be composted.  Encourage kids to use scraps of construction paper by creating ‘stained glass-style’ art with them.  Larger, higher quality scraps of fabric can be re-used in quilts or made into wall art as shown on Apartment Therapy’s green sister site, Re-Nest.  The rest can be given new life as stuffing for toys or pillows.

Wash oil paints from your hands and brushes with an eco-friendly, phosphate-free dish soap instead of solvents. Dish soap won’t harm your paintbrushes, and it dissolves oil paints better than harsh, often-toxic solvents like turpentine.  Some artists also use vegetable oils to clean and maintain their brushes.

About Stephanie Rogers
Stephanie Rogers is a fashion- and beauty-obsessed freelance writer with an abiding love for kale and organic wine, living in Asheville, North Carolina.


  1. Some Goodwills or other charities take fabrics (not rugs) and sell them to rag makers to make money for their charity. I am not sure if they take small scraps of fabric though.

    I was curious since you mentioned to compost fabric and/or paper, do certain counties take these items for their composters? I personally would not put fabric in my personl composter since I think it would take a long time to compost. Nor do I put paper in my composter because the paper has been bleached. This is just my own preferences. Have you had good success putting either in a personal composter?

  2. I have a ton of scrap fabric and beat-up clothes I need to Freecycle because I know I won’t use it anytime soon. I was tempted to toss them (in the trash) but you talked me out of it. : ) I’m sure another artist can use it.

  3. Anna, I only use non-bleached paper in the compost pile that feeds my food and herb gardens, but I’ve started using bleached paper and glossy paper to recycle into my own handmade paper for things like greeting cards. I have another compost pile in the back corner of my yard that’s more of a long-term turnover sort of thing, and I’ve put scraps of natural fabric in there – it’s still a work in progress though so I can’t attest to how well it has worked or how long it takes to break down.

    I’m not sure about which areas take fabric/paper for composters…

    Carla, glad to hear it! 🙂 Old beat up clothes can be turned into some pretty fab things. I need to pull out my sewing machine again…

  4. Your feature has really educated me, thank you. I love the idea of using recycled, non-toxic and sustainable materials and using recycled paper and pencils. It would be a great thing to get companies to use such materials throughout their businesses! I think these are great ideas to post on our blog to further educate others! You do a great job! Check us out sometime if you get a chance!


  5. Nice article Eco Chic!
    However, The group Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) is a non-profit trade association of manufacturers of art materials. They are responsible for labeling and monitoring art paints for their safety. In other words they are largely sponsored by “in house” industrial representatives. Guess what! It’s interesting to go to the manufacturer websites of visual arts supplies and read through their safety data sheets. As one example the following is quoted from Windsor Newton’s site on the commonly used Flake White oil paint:
    “USAGE PRECAUTIONS: Avoid spilling, skin and eye contact. Wear full protective clothing for prolonged exposure and/or high concentrations. Pregnant or breastfeeding women must not handle this product.
    STORAGE PRECAUTIONS: Keep in cool, dry, ventilated storage and closed containers.
    STORAGE CRITERIA: Misc.hazardous material storage.
    INHALATION: Harmful by inhalation. Harmful: danger of serious damage to health by prolonged exposure through inhalation.
    INGESTION: Harmful if swallowed. Harmful: possible risk of irreversible effects if swallowed.
    SKIN: Product has a defatting effect on skin.
    EYES: Irritating to eyes.
    HEALTH WARNINGS: Swallowing concentrated chemical may cause severe internal injury.
    OTHER HEALTH EFFECTS: Toxic to Reproductive Health Categ. 1. Toxic to Reproductive Health Categ. 3. Carcinogen Category 3.
    ROUTE OF ENTRY: Inhalation. Ingestion.” [skin absorption.]
    MEDICAL SYMPTOMS: Upper respiratory irritation. Nausea, vomiting. Allergic rash.
    MEDICAL CONSIDERATIONS: Skin disorders and allergies.”
    So not to single out Windsor & Newton nor Flake White more information on toxicity in oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc. paints can be found by requesting a Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS) from individual manufacturers, ie: Utrecht, Rembrandt, Liquitex, Crayola, etc.) Most of these companies provide MSDS’s on their websites. The Cadmium, chromium and thalo colors are significantly toxic as are terpentines, fixatives, varnishes, plastics/acrylics, and preservatives, ie. formaldehyde.
    Taking this a little further one asks, “what happens to the environment when a manufacturing plant produces large quantities of this material?” and “how many artists, art students, and hobbyists are using the very necessary precautions when handling the paints?” Once the painting is finished and placed in the living room, kitchen or museum, what is the air quality produced by VOCs/off gases?
    A look at the alternatives with the painting arts that do not produce a toxic body or environment gives egg tempera, casein (milk), water and beeswax mediums. All can be used without toxic pigments, petro chemicals (varnishes, acrylics, fixatives), heavy metals (cadmium, chromium), and formaldehyde and other preservatives that are in common use with many paints.
    With sculpture there is clay/earth/stone, wood, fire, water and air to create work.
    There’s been alot of excitement in the last 30 or so years with artists applying the natural world to create their statement. A wonderful website to view what is going on in environmental art, with many artists and approaches as examples, is http://www.greenmuseum.org.
    Sustainable solutions are at our fingertips.
    en Thanks,
    Greg Patch

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