The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

September 27, 2007

Of Coffee, Crayons, and Crackling Firelogs

Last Sunday at the farmer’s market, a woman asked me if I knew what crayons were made from. I didn’t. So when I got home, I did a little research. Most crayons are made from paraffin wax and pigment. Well, I know what pigment is. And I think I know what wax is. Or do I? So I looked up paraffin wax. Turns out it’s made from petroleum! You probably already knew that. Silly me. I had no idea.

So I did a quick Google search and found several brands of alternative crayons. Here are a few examples:

After looking up crayons, I started wondering about other things made from wax. Like waxed paper. I’ve seen eco web sites promoting waxed paper as an alternative to plastic wrap. But if they’re both made from petroleum, is there a difference? Does paraffin wax biodegrade? Apparently, it does, according to a study by Fabien Marino of the Department of Chemical Engineering at McGill University, Montréal. Click here if you’d like to read the PDF-format report.

I searched to see if there were any alternatives to paraffin waxed paper. I did find one Canadian brand called Chefs Select 100% Natural Soy Wax Paper. It doesn’t seem to be available in the United States, though. So I contacted Natural Value, the company that makes the “natural” unbleached waxed paper sold in most U.S. health food stores, and I received a very nice reply:

…our wax is indeed paraffin wax…we have considered using the new soy based wax, but both of our waxed paper producers have told us that they do not like the way the product turns out (smell, consistency), and that they cannot guarantee that the soy wax is gmo free…so we are still searching for something that will work for us…if we can do that, we will…I hope this helps

So I guess paraffin waxed paper is somewhat better than plastic because it will biodegrade. But since it’s made from petroleum, we should find alternatives.
Which brings me to the subject of coffee. Did you know that artificial firelogs like Duraflame are also made from paraffin wax? But there is an alternative to paraffin fireplace logs, and that is the Java Log, made from coffee grounds and 100% vegetable wax. And I’ll bet it smells good when it’s burning. Normally, I like to compost my coffee grounds (as well as those of my co-workers) but maybe this winter I’ll try them out in the fireplace in the form of a Java Log or two.

So, if you’re wondering why I didn’t mention the obvious product made from paraffin, candles, it’s because natural beeswax candles are ubiquitous these days. A Google search will bring up a huge list of choices.


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13 years ago

See for info on paraffin and other candle waxes. Contrary to popular belief, soy wax is not sustainable either. And no, please do not melt crayons to use as candles — the paraffin is dangerous to the planet and your health, and so are the colours in all likelihood. These days, you can’t take anything for granted, especially if it’s made by a corporation.

BTW, a fantastic option for wrapping food is Abeego: I’m looking into stocking them in my own web shop.

EK Sommer
15 years ago

Your Web site is great! I am researching plastics for a group that I am part of. My task is to find out what the best solutions are for drinking bottles, storing food, etc.

As far as I can determine there are no good plastics.

So it is time for us all to seek and share alternatives. I am also disappointed in the wax paper issue. All these years I thought I was getting away from plastic by using standard old Reynold’s wax paper, but I am now looking for alternatives.

At the blog I learned about soy wax paper, which I will look into. But I’m not thrilled about supporting the soy industry or the corn industry either.

Can’t we come up with better solutions? What ever happened to plain old cellulose bags? (Beware Cello, which as you can imagine is yet another petroleum product dressed up to look like a tree.)

15 years ago

Hi Beth,
Remember me, from NaBloPoMo & the Great Plastic Challenge?

Well, I’ve been on the everlasting quest to try soy- or beeswax- unbleached waxed paper. (As you recall, the soy waxed paper we both found was pretty pricey.) I’ve decided to Ask Burt’s Bees, owned by Clorox in good old downtown Oakland, CA, to see if they can partner up with their parent company and manufacture this. I figure the Clorox corporation is trying to turn over a new green leaf with their biodegradable cleaners. So there’s already motivation to turn their business around.

Hope you’ll help me get the word out. I know you’re a dogged letter writer and follower-upper.

Check out my “Bee the Change” letter writing campaign. Hopefully the company is halfway there, they just have to know what pent-up demand there is for this product.

I’ve commented on their corporate blog and also sent in a letter via snail mail. Have yet to see my comment posted.

Thanks, and keep up the good work,

15 years ago

Beth, as you’re looking for alternatives to petroleum you need to revisit the Duraflame site. They have switched to 100% non-fossil waxes in their firelogs. They have gotten very creative for sourcing, and one of the products they use comes from a renewable resource that used to be considered a waste stream from pulp mills, isolated from tree resins that used to be lost in the mill system. Very environmentally carbon-friendly, if you can accept that these products still contain some wood residue. But it’s a far-cry from the old sawdust and wax logs, and still far better than burning raw logs or pellets.

J. E. Patterson
15 years ago

Found this when looking for a source for the lyra beeswax crayons, which I had used in an encaustic collage workshop and loved — while from a price perspective, it might be hard to give these to little kids, if you actually want to *work* with crayons, they are an absolute joy. Also, while I’m sure it would not be as consistent in pigment and would take some experimenting to do well, I make my own encaustic paint by mixing pigment (oil pastel shavings, powdered pigment, gouache, whatever I can get my hands on) with hot beeswax (in a crockpot, or in a muffin tin on a hot plate at about 275) — I bet you could make your own crayons this way, and bulk beeswax is cheap (there are a number of small organic apiaries who sell in bulk on eBay.)

Great blog!

16 years ago

hi beth,

here’s the thing: i think the king arthur soy waxed paper is not going to be economical to buy unless you set up a buying co-op. each box of soy waxed paper costs $3.95, and then USPS shipping and handling up to $15 costs $5.95. (i didn’t want to pay $9 for one box of soy waxed paper that still might use bleached paper so i decided to hold off for now and keep re-washing my little plastic snack bags.) with the co-op, it might be cost-effective to go in on buying them in bulk with a group of friends who live close by, that way you can spread out the s&h charges.

i’m trying to organize a buying co-op now with interested people in my neighborhood, and also working to get my son’s school to switch over. if i succeed at the latter, then maybe i can work out a deal with the school’s buyer to order a few extra boxes for me and i’ll reimburse them.

will keep you posted! of all my research, the discovery of a soy waxed paper made me most excited!

16 years ago

I’d like to have that canvas bag. I only have one largish one that we do our grocery shopping with and we sure could use another. This is my first visit to your site and I’m looking forward to spending time here getting to know you and what this site is about. From what little I’ve seen so far, it’s my kinda site.

Thanks for doing what you do.

Much peace, love and understanding,

~ RS ~

16 years ago

OK – so if my kids color all over paper, is it still OK to recycle the paper?? Never knew crayons were petroleum based. Axelle told me about your site. I love it. I have 4 kids (3 adopted just so ya don’t think I am hogging world resources) and trying to cut down on our plastic and waste is a challenge. You site is so helpful!! I also have too many bags. I am trying so hard to remember your words regarding saving resources doesn’t include buying more stuff your don’t really need. I have bought my kids stainless steel lunch containers which are great.

16 years ago

Thanks for all the great posts lately Beth! I try to read your blog everyday so I can keep being inspired on new ideas of to remind myself of things I hadn’t really thought out before (i.e. the crayons, the wax paper, etc)
Keep the stuff coming!!! (ps. I love having “too many” bags. I actually get excited when I go shopping to determine which Bag I’m going to take into the store! Its like a new outfit or something….but this outfit everyone notices!

16 years ago

Interesting post. I live in Salem so the bag people are actually quite close. I have “too many” bags already, per my husband but that sounds like a project I should be supporting!

PS Spent this week with my in-laws due to my mother-in-law’s father dying. Apparently Prineville Oregon (north of Bend) doesn’t have recycling. It was killing me how much garbage we generated in one week. Not to mention water and electricity usage.

16 years ago

mmmm…coffee bags–do they smell good?? What a great project! Coffee and tote bags…two of my favorite things!

As for the crayons, who knew?

I brought my own mug to the coffee shop today–thanks for the inspiration!

terrible person
16 years ago

Um, if we make paraffin wax crayons into candles — and then burn them — aren’t we releasing whatever chemicals are in them (and new ones formed by combustion) into the air? Often within the confines of our houses?

I’ll bet those coffee logs smell good, though. There’s a coffee roastery near one of the places I swim, and sometimes they’re roasting while I’m in the water. It’s not quite the same smell as coffee brewing, but it’s quite nice. It’s as if I’m swimming in coffee!

heather t
16 years ago

Oh yeah, RGB, there are tons of projects for using up broken crayons.

OUCH – the prices! Makes it hard to swallow when the brand-name paraffin ones go on sale for 5/$1 during back to school!

Radical Garbage Man
16 years ago

I had no idea that paraffin was made out of petroleum. I guess that’s what makes it burn so hot (NASA is actually doing research on it as the base for a solid rocket fuel — stable at room temperature and won’t explode when dropped but burns like hell when heated properly).

So, sorry to be a kill-joy again (as always) but I read the dissertation you linked to. Based on the guy’s research, I don’t think paraffin will degrade naturally. In order to get the bacterial culture to grow, he had to do some tampering with the material. While the data are interesting and demonstrate that hydrocarbon polymers can be degraded under proper conditions, the bottom line is that we aren’t going to start a separate curbside crayon and candle collection anytime soon, which is what it would take because we’d need to take it all to a lab and put it through a fairly intensive procedure for it to break down.

My recommendation: Do what I learned how to do in first grade. Melt your crayons into really cool candles by putting a string in a cup with ice cubes and then pouring molten wax into it. The ice melts out, leaving neat looking holes. Alternatively, you can put a string in an oven safe container, pack the container with crayon fragments and bake it until it liquefies. Cool and unmold. If you want a well-burning candle, you should toss a few beeswax candle stubs into the mixture.

If you don’t want candles, you can make new crayons by sorting the stubs by color and putting each color into the bottom of a muffin tin. You’ll get a nice round disc of crayon, perfect for little kid sized hands. If you really want to go crazy, you can put more than one color together and get custom-made swirly crayons.

Just keep the wax out of the compost and the recycling bin.

16 years ago

Beth — Thanks so much for the great info! Now I finally understand why so many people are concerned about wax. I had NO CLUE it was almost all petroleum based. A “duh” moment? Perhaps. But I just assumed wax was a natural substance. Learn something new every day.