Giving plastic waste, including kids’ markers, the wax treatment

Crayola is one of the most recognizable brands in North America, up there with Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Apple. It’s for this reason the maker of crayons, markers and other art supplies for kids takes its image seriously.

The company boasts that it uses enough emission-free solar power to manufacture one billion crayons and 500 million markers annually. Its markers are made from recycled plastic. Its coloured pencils are made from reforested wood.

But the company was caught off guard earlier this year when a group of 40 elementary school students from San Rafael, Calif., began an online petition criticizing it for not having a recycling program for its old plastic markers.

As a parent, I can relate. Leave a cap off one of those markers – which my girls do all the time—and it’s useless. There’s no option but to toss it in the trash. We probably have a couple hundred currently sitting in an art drawer. About half don’t work.

The students urged Crayola to create a take-back recycling program for the markers. The online campaign, which began in May through the website, resulted in nearly 85,000 online signatures and thousands of form e-mails sent to Crayola’s executive team.

Crayola’s response was that it lacked the facilities and a process for such a recycling program. Looking to take advantage of a competitor on the ropes, global art-supply firm Dixon Ticonderoga announced out of the blue that they would start recycling their own markers.

But here’s an interesting idea: What if Crayola took back their old plastic markers and turned them into synthetic waxes that can be used to make their crayons?

Talk about a recycling scheme made in heaven. Crayola could then proudly advertise that its crayons are made from its own recycled materials, which offsets the use of non-renewable waxes that come from petroleum. It would also shelter the company from volatile oil prices, and could actually prove to be a money-saver.

Can it be done?

“Potentially we could do that,” said Pushkar Kumar, founder and chief executive of Toronto-based GreenMantra Technologies.

GreenMantra, founded just two years ago, has come up with a relatively low-cost process for creating waxes and lubricants from old plastic bags, butter GreenMantra, founded just two years ago, has come up with a relatively low-cost process for creating waxes and lubricants from old plastic bags, butter tubs, yogurt containers and yes, plastic marker casings. “Even mixed plastics can work with our process.”

It’s not widely known, or thought about, but we use waxes in a wide range of products, including roads, tires, polishes, coatings, particle board, artificial fireplace logs, and many foods.

With the exception of natural waxes, such as the expensive kind that come from bees, most waxes are currently created as a by-product of petroleum refining. It may be a $12 billion market, but refiners view wax as a sideshow to their main bread and butter: fuels and lubricants.

“Lately these refiners have decided to get out of production of unrefined waxes,” said Kumar, explaining that more petroleum companies are taking their by-product waxes and further refining them into lubricating oil.

This is creating an opportunity for makers of synthetic waxes. “A $12 billion market is big enough for me,” Kumar said with a laugh. “We are the only synthetic wax manufacturer now operating in Canada.”

There are others in the global market, such as multibillion-dollar petrochemical manufacturer Sasol, but Kumar said GreenMantra’s process – which he invented with his father in the early 2000s—is more flexible, energy efficient, and significantly less costly, making its wax products comparatively attractive.

But it’s still early days. All GreenMantra has right now is a pre-commercial plant operating in Brantford that can produce between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of wax annually. To make it a full commercial plant it would have to produce at least 10,000 tonnes, and ideally 50,000 tonnes or higher to drive costs to where they need to be.

A deal with one big customer could lead to such a plant. “One large maker of roof shingles could use the entire output from a facility, so we could partner with them to build and operate a plant that’s dedicated to supplying their business,” said Kumar.

Artificial fire logs, which strangely enough contain 50 per cent wax, are another ideal fit. A market-leading manufacturing of such logs would typically require 100,000 tonnes of wax a year.

And then, of course, there’s Crayola. Kumar wouldn’t confirm if the two companies have had talks. If not, they probably should.

That the crayon my child uses was made from the marker she used to use? That a Toronto-based cleantech start-up helped make it happen?

Now that’s something to wax poetic about.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

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