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Reducing Waste in the Art Room

Many teachers have told me they don’t know where to start when they get a new assignment to teach art for the first time. Or they have art supplies but don’t know how to use them. For many we get inspiration from online sources, see what other people are doing and then think about how we can adapt it to fit our curriculum objectives. Great, now we have an idea but we need the supplies. Then we go to the store, or order project specific materials from the supplier. This creates a cycle of inspiration, ideation and consumption. The consumption is producing a lot of unnecessary waste and it’s also leading to the production and consumption of cheaper (both cost and quality) products that are more harmful to the environment.

I am inspired to write this post to explore how we can change this cycle of consumption in art class and to share some of the things I've observed in implementing changes in my own work. I have also seen how losing specialized art educators and designated art rooms in elementary schools are impacting the way art materials are being sourced and used in schools. My hope is that this can be helpful for you in creating solutions in your classroom and school.

I have had the opportunity to work with teachers and community program leads to re-evaluate how and what materials are being used in order to reduce waste and lower our environmental impact. Here are my big takeaways.

Supply Share

One idea is to create a central storage for materials in your school, or go digital and use a shared document showing classroom ‘inventory’ of supplies that can be shared. This will allow you to share your tools and any unused or leftover materials from your class can be available for others to use. It’s like a library but for art supplies. This is especially great for tools that are more costly and can be used over and over again (non-consumables). It’s hard for one teacher to supply a class set of non-consumables but if each teacher has a couple you can see how having a library of art supplies makes it possible to have a class set for use. This practice can also help with ensuring students have there own tools and materials to work with at their own desk or station. Return the tools clean and ready for the next users. Right now as each school manages Covid19 protocols it might be best to start small with a google doc of the non-consumable items available in each classroom. Sanitize tools before and after use and keep them organized.

Organize, organize, organize

Anyone who has met me knows I get great joy from organizing. This is not just my virgo nature, it is also how I keep track of what is available to use and what is getting low. I find that seeing the materials gives me new ideas of how to use for a project. If I can see it I can use it, if you can see it you can use it. Think about that when organizing classroom materials. What is seen and clean is used first. When I was working at a popular art gallery in Edmonton we amassed a huge collection of mixed media materials from the Reuse Centre. If this wall of stuff got out of hand no one wanted to use the materials. It didn’t matter how cool I thought a bin of old cds were, if that bin had pipe cleaners mixed in students would not go near. Somehow it was contaminated. It was a weekly (sometimes daily depending on the studio project calendar) cleaning task for us educators. A couple of us would tackle this wall and it was so satisfying to see it clean. It was also more user friendly when it was organized and clean. It was inspiring rather than daunting. Although most of us are not using large collections of shared mixed media items this strategy applies across the board. Think about if you would be inspired to use a material in its current stored state. If the answer is no, or even maybe, chances are students won’t be inspired to use it either.


Part of maintaining a clean and organized art supply collection is caring for the materials and tools. Some simple steps will make your supplies last longer, which cuts down on consumption and waste. Clean right after use, especially anything involving glue or paint. Teach your students how to care for the materials they are using. This teaches respect for the materials and respect for those with whom we are sharing the materials. It also teaches that art supplies can be used for a long time when properly cared for. Demonstrate how to wash as you go, this will show students that tidying up and cleaning are part of art making. This can help prevent any forgotten glue sticks without lids or wet painty brushes. It also helps reduce the mad rush to clean at the end of the lesson. Not to mention it's a great life skill to clean as you go and to respect and care for the items you use.

Did you know?

Brushes should be laid flat to air-dry when cleaned. After you wash a paintbrush the moisture has to go somewhere. If they are standing, bristles up, the moisture will run down into the ferrule (the metal collar between the bristles and handle) eating away the glue and causing the wood of the handle to warp. This is often why the head of the brush keeps falling off. Also, reshape the bristles when washing; use your fingers to gently bring back the shape.

Use it & Reuse it

Use everything until it can’t be used anymore. This goes for everything from paper to paint brushes. Teach your students, and yourself to work with great intention; select materials and use materials with intention. What do I mean by this?

Here’s an example. My pet peeve is when a shape is cut out of the center of a piece of paper. (I know there are sometimes valid reasons for this it still makes me shutter.) Another student will then pick up this beautiful, crisp pink piece of paper just to see the negative space of the square that was so carefully cut out by their classmate. They then discard the paper because it is deemed contaminated, unusable. This paper, which is 85% usable, sits on the sidelines never to be used again. My first tip here would be to practice and teach to cut from the sides rather than the center and encourage your students to work around the negative space. This shows intention and consideration for optimizing our materials. My second tip, for when this inevitably will happen, collect the pieces of ‘used’ paper and cut them down for future use. Have some standard cutting sizes – half page, quarter page, strips, etc. Any bits that don’t fit the standard cutting sizes can be put into a bin of random paper shapes. Keep it tidy and use for collage, stencils, and whatever else you can think of. These bits are also great for making your own paper.

Another way to use what you have is to modify plans, when possible, to use up what you’ve got instead of buying more supplies. For example, you are planning a printmaking project but don’t want to use scratchfoam and linocuts is too advanced, you do have cardboard and some miscellaneous flat, textured items. Try collagraph printing using common materials that could be leftovers from other projects– check out this blog about collagraph printing.

The big idea here is to encourage using up what you have before getting new supplies. The tips I’ve listed earlier will help with this last step because when you are prepping for your next lesson or project you will know what and how much you have at hand. This will reduce your waste and your costs.

Adopting these practices is a conscious effort to reduce waste from art making in your work and your classroom. These practices in conjunction with meaningful art making we engage with art education for a purpose greater than product. This is part of the process of art making and is important to be part of your lessons and projects. If we prioritize the time for it we teach students that selecting materials, cleaning, organizing and caring for our tools is part of art making, this is part of our responsibility. Adopting these practices as part of your pedagogy promotes sustainable practices that are rooted in respect. Respect for the materials, for others and, more critically, the environment.

Until next time, happy making friends!



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