The Fine Art of Recycling | Seventh Generation
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The Fine Art of Recycling

Author: BethArky

When my son began toting home his first finger paintings from preschool, every piece brought tears to my eyes and was clearly destined for framed display. Some actually did make it up on the walls, thanks to blue painter's tape. Yet alas, for all my good intentions, most of the paper ended up stacked in a cabinet, stored away for future curating.

But one day the five-year pileup became too much for even this pack rat. After I'd sent my now-7-year-old off to school, I spent hours creating two piles. There were the treasures that tugged at my heartstrings, featured fabulous splashes of my favorite blues and greens, or captured a special moment in time when my boy still had a headful of glorious curls. And then there was the much larger collection splayed across my living room rug, featuring 19 of 20 nearly identical versions of rainbows. Let's face it, we're not talking Monet here.

Determined to recycle as much as I could, I methodically removed buttons and other crafty glue-ons. (While it now occurs to me that I might have saved these bits for future projects, I confess that I'm not quite that green.) I managed to finish up just in time to chuck the castaways in my building's recycling bin before the kid arrived home.

I know I'm not alone in this paper chase. I've chatted with other parents and read numerous threads on online message boards as moms adrift in a sea of artwork struggle with how to display or store the precious pieces they can't stand to edit out of their collections. So I wasn't surprised when The New York Times recently tackled the topic.

What I did find shocking was the featured mothers' mode of disposal. The first mom profiled, who works at an academic research center -- shouldn't she know better? -- said she's "always on the lookout" for her 4-year-old daughter's "exceptional" drawings. But the latest batch would, in her words, "soon be archived in the rubbish bin."

The rubbish bin? Why not the recycling bin?

I read on. The second mom, an artist herself, boasted that she's "getting better about not recycling." Apparently, doing so would leave the art out where her 5-year-old daughter might find and retrieve it. These days, she said, "it goes in the garbage." Egads, woman! Where are your subterfuge skills?

The author of the piece divides the moms into two camps, the "keepers" and the "chuckers." The former are those who lovingly frame every stick-figure rendition for grandmother while the latter, the writer seems to insinuate, are somehow crasser for turning Bobby's 50th train drawing into wrapping paper. To my mind, using art as wrapping paper is a genius way of reusing. And just imagine how doubly pleased grandma would be to receive a piece of art wrapped in another piece of art!

Just when I was verging on apoplectic, I finally read about an arts educator so ruthless that back when her daughters were churning out the work, she wouldn't even let it reach the car. "I was the mom who opened her child's school folder at school, walked to the office and recycled 9 out of every 10 pieces," she said. While tough mom's approach seems a bit cold-hearted for this mushy fool, I salute her environmental efforts.

If this generation of mothers feels especially buried before their kids hit kindergarten, we're not imagining things. According to David Burton, a professor of art education quoted in the piece, kids as young as 18 months are scribbling away with ergonomic crayons. Years ago, he says, even art educators "believed that children would just waste materials when they were really toddlers." But now, he adds, we know of the importance of art in early child development. For instance, drawing helps build cognitive and fine motor skills.

When it comes to keeping our kids' artwork, it boils down to sentimentality and space. All I ask is that you recycle, people. As long as your little darlings are using nontoxic paint and crayons -- and let's hope they are -- you're good to go.

How much of your kids' art do you keep? How do you dispose of the rest?

Beth Arky is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who wishes she could locate her own early master works.


birdcatberry picture
As the mom of a 3rd grader and a 1st grader, I wish someone had told me that the artwork onslaught slows to a trickle in First Grade. This is particularly true with my son. Three years ago I was overwhelmed by the giant stacks of artwork and imagined having to deal with another one-foot stack of artwork every year for 8 more years! Not so. I may have looked at their artwork differently, and made different choices about what to do with it if I had been more aware of this shift. Good luck to all of you!
Gammie2010 picture
I would take pictures of them and dispose of the originals. This way you are not really getting rid of it just preserving them! I then put them in their photo albums.
Ludicrous Mama picture
Ludicrous Mama
Some ideas for re-use: You can cut up abstract works of art into gift tags for holiday and birthday presents, or larger subjects into holiday or thank you cards. Using as wrapping paper is all well and good, but hard to actually do, except for small gifts. Another option is to stack several papers together and hole punch them into confetti. The confetti can then be glued onto new works of art, or put into envelopes, presents, etc. Or you can shred or cut them them for gift bag or package filler. And senior centers and retirement homes LOVE children's artwork! One mom's trash is another man's treasure!
Ludicrous Mama picture
Ludicrous Mama
If you can't recycle the paper because it was painted on, you CAN compost or put in your yard waste bin for the dump to compost! Same as empty greasy pizza boxes!
justinkatysam picture
Other than a few choice pieces of school/art work that I save in a labeled file, I gather the past few months worth of Kindergarten artwork and lay it out on the kitchen floor. I take a few pictures of it all, and then recycle them. The pictures get printed and put in an album to show how his art progresses and is preserved without having endless binders of wrinkled paper or things taped all over the walls. If I saved everything he brought home, we'd be swimming in it!
amm6300 picture
I laminate some of them and use as placemats for the different seasons. I also will mail some to the grandparents.
Muddlesnc picture
My brother, who has a daughter that is currently 9, took to scanning in her artwork and saving it electronically. Made it easier to send to Grandparents and Great Grandparents living in a different state. As to recycling, most kids drawings, mainly with crayons are not recyclable. Though I do like the idea of resue as wrapping paper or cards.
tamdoll picture
I like the idea of wrapping paper and cards. I used to decorate my garage with all my kids extra artwork - a big, boring drab space was turned into one filled with color!
willowandlaylasmom picture
I also am a kid's art photo taker. Another cool way to keep the precious pieces is to scan them {A stack at a time} and save them onto a disc of choice. You could then label each years worth and use one piece of art for the disc sleve. Other than that we've sent some art to our sponsor child in Burkina Faso {who adores each piece} We've reused them to make envelopes and there are those*ahem* that just get cut up into scrap papers. :)
Eeah99 picture
I recycle my son's art work into greeting cards to send to grandma, grandpa, cousins, aunts and uncles, you name it! They love that they are getting some of his artwork (we live in Alaska, while they all live on the east coast), and I love that I am not "throwing" any of it away (and by "throwing" I of course mean putting it in our recycle bin. :-)
ssoroka picture
I am the proud mother of a 29 year old daughter! I am a saver, although am now moving toward what my daughter and her fiance embrace: minimalism. While I did not save everything she did (recycled), I have saved her art work, writings, baby clothes, small toys, birthday and holiday cards sent to her by family members/close friends to fill a closet with 4 to 5 good-sized plastic containers. This Christmas when our daughter was home for a visit, we enjoyed going through each container and sorting: keep, recycle, donate, and throw away. I felt a tug at my heart when I heard the thump of that first load of art and writings hit the bottom of the recycle container! Most important,our daughter was the decision-maker as to what to keep (although I sneaked back in a few items!), and what she could live without, and we all enjoyed the trip down memory lane!
NoAdditives picture
We send pictures my daughter has drawn to our family members for Mother's and Father's Days, as birthday cards, etc. We don't live close to any family so the enjoy getting artwork in addition to pictures of our kids. As they get older and are making bigger pictures we'll use them as wrapping paper as well.
tcrlady picture
As a child (I'm a teacher, but not a parent, so I'm mindful of letting my students recycle the papers they don't want to bring home...thus eliminating that problem because most of them do NOT have recycling at home.), my parents bought a roll of cork and glued it to a section of the bedroom walls-- for me and my siblings. We were allowed to display the art, stories, cards, etc. that we wanted using pushpins. My mom let us decide what stayed up forever and what got put into a different rotation. THis gave the ownership to us as children, which is a great lesson in accountability. At 6, my little sister could say, I like this art, but I think Grandma would like it on her wall more. picture
Every year we took one 4 x 8 section of there bedroom wall and made it a display. As they liked to change things out the old became gift cards and wrapping paper. At the end of the year the saved items were packed in a box to save.
Live Green Dream Big picture
Live Green Dream Big
In the first years of our daughters life this caused me such GREAT ANXIETY...seriously there were piles each week & I honestly thought it was all beautiful! First I started a 3 ring binder & we've been able to get 2 years of 'very special' work saved in each one... We also use 'art' to wrap small gifts & even turn paper sacks - into gift bags by gluing the "art" over the store or restaurant logo. NEXT is my favorite 'recycling' idea & it was actually Ella's idea... While visiting her elderly GREAT Uncle one day, several residents at his nursing home were admiring the art that Ella had brought to brighten him room...on the way home, she planned to make more art - enough for EVERY PERSON there. Instead, when we arrived home, she started going thru some of her stack & realized she could donate pieces of art - this works for sculptures & 3-dimensional art too & The Nursing Home loves it so much, that they use Ella's art as "prizes" on Bingo Night! I no longer have any anxiety about the amount of art...and I don't personally have to put any of it in the trash. Once a month we make a trip to the local Nursing Home & not only are they delighted to received it, but Ella knows that it is being enjoyed by many, many people ~ and she LOVES to spread JOY! Thanks for the great discussion!
MC picture
I use non recyclable pieces of my daughter's art for decorating home made birthday cards (her grandparents LOVE these) and making my annual wall calendars. I print a blank 12 month calendar and stick pieces of her art to liven up each month- these pieces are chosen by my daughter out of the pile of un-recyclable art pieces. I make one such calendar for my home and one for my office- and try to match the month/ season with the topic of the art piece. Plus my daughter loves to reuse/ re-purpose her old pieces of art to make large collages.
nollanderson picture
As a mother of four I know you can't reduce teh number of papers that come into the home but you can certainly reuse before you recycle. Use the back of the art for notepaper to relatives. Cut them up for collages. Use it for wrapping paper. Do some decoupage on gift boxes. Cut them up and make birthday cards and other greeting cards. Reuse possibilities of kid art is endless. For some more ideas on what to do with all the pieces around the house - check out
cindieg picture
Having said what I said about checking facts before printing, I thank you BethArky for starting the discussion ;-)
cindieg picture
In our home, we do not wrap presents - we have a bag of gift bags which grows as we receive gifts from others in these bags. But when sending to friends and relatives out of the area, I use kid art as the wrapping paper of choice. I like previous comment about taking photos - easy storage! Also - please Seventh Gen, check out facts before printing articles. (Thank you to first post.) I called local recycle pickup - no kid art. It's not wet paper (although that's probably a good sign), it's the chemicals in the paint, the glue, etc. that cannot go into recycling. Color pencil drawings is ok.
amysisson picture
I also like sleeman's idea -- take photos with a digital camera (or, alternatively, use a scanner) and store the images electronically.
amysisson picture
Instead of trying to hide the fact that you're recycling some of the art, why not enlist your child's help? Explain that between you, you're going to choose your and their favorites, and let them know they're helping other kids AND the environment by recycling the non-favorites -- to make paper that other kids can use for THEIR art projects? Make the disposal process a pleasant activity, and use the opportunity to reminisce about what makes some pieces favorites?
telah0916 picture
I have a hard time getting rid of anything that my daughters create. Babyminding has some great suggestions for preserving the art without the clutter!
DriftSeed picture
we're working to implement a one in-one out rule, including the art and projects done at school...needless to say it is still a work in progress. For now, my son and I sit down twice a year - once at Christmas break and once at the end of the year. We sort through the pile from the year (kept in a large box in my office until this point) and HE decides what stays and what goes. He can and does very quickly turn a pile of 100 papers into a pile of five. These five go into a three ring binder for quick access and viewing. If he is bringing home large volumes of paper during the year, I don't wait - I get him right at that moment - Is this a treasure we need to keep? Or just something you had to make in class? Often, he takes the 'piece' from my hand and puts it into the recycling bin.
sleeman picture
I have come to realize that the experience of making the art is where the joy is felt by my daughter. Once completed they are admired for a day, then tossed aside for the new one. But journey to the recycling bin still made me sad, so I decided to photograph them. Every piece is photographed and burned onto a DVD. She will still get to see all of her beautiful works of art one day ( if she wants), and I won't have to store it. Of course, who are we really saving it for? :)
mlcamilli picture
It's my understanding that paper that has gotten wet (ie. markers or paint) cannot be recycled because once the fibers are wet they are no longer viable for reuse. I would love some feedback on this. I definitely recycle all I can! I have a large basket in my kitchen, where I put all drawings and projects that are not displayed, to keep them under control. After it's full, I take some time, usually while the kids are asleep, to divide it into keep, recycle, and unfortunately, toss. The keeps go into accordian files for that school year, large projects into one of those big brown art portfolio folders. The recycles go in the recycle bin, hidden by other household recycling. The toss pile, well, gets tossed. But it's usually pretty small. REMEMBER - you must buy recycled paper products for there to be a market for your recycled paper!