This essay is in the process of being edited / revised.
Last month I visited the Crayola Factory in Easton, Pennsylvania. When I arrived, I found out that the Crayola Factory that is open to the public is a museum geared towards children, although it is not the same as the manufacturing plant where crayons are produced for distribution. One exhibit in the museum is a ten minute demonstration of how crayons are made. This demonstration is led by a Crayola employee who explains the steps of production by producing a small amount of crayons on machinery that was built specifically for demonstration purposes. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the Crayola manufacturing plant, which is seven miles down the road, because it is closed to the public. Crayola used to give tours of their manufacturing plant but ceased to do so in 1998. Several Crayola employees told me that the reason they stopped giving tours of the actual plant was to protect the safety of the factory workers and the visitors, however, none of the employees could explain what changed as of 1998 or what the specific safety risks were of having visitors in the manufacturing plant. The images below come from the Crayola Factory museum. While I tried to find as much detail as possible about the actual production, it was difficult to understand the process without permission to view the manufacturing plant.
Click on image to enlarge.
Paraffin Wax: Paraffin wax comes from the refinement of crude oil, a process that produces most of the petroleum products we use today. Crude oil is another name for naturally occurring petroleum, a type of fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are forms of stored solar energy created from the incomplete decomposition of dead organic matter from millions of years ago that is buried and converted by complex chemical reactions. The dead organic matter that formed petroleum is most often plankton. Drilling crude oil is a complex process that is often environmentally degrading (see “Environment” section). Crude oil contains many different types of hydrocarbons (combinations of Hydrogen and Carbon atoms), which need to be separated out in order to make petroleum products. Since different types of hydrocarbons have different boiling points, they can all be separated into their different types by distillation. This means that the oil is heated and the vapors are condensed into the separated hydrocarbons. The separated hydrocarbons are treated to remove impurities and then further altered by processes that combine the various fractions into mixtures that create the desired products. The solid residual that is left after oil has been distilled is what is used to make paraffin wax.
Red Pigment: Pigments are defined as solids that alter appearance by selective absorption and/or by scattering light, as compared to dyes, which are defined as substances that impart color to a substrate by selective absorption of light. To make the red pigment, a dye is first created and then mixed with a crystal powder. Dye can be broken down into two parts- chromophores and auxochromes. Chromophores, the color-producing part of dye molecules, are systems of double bonds. Red dye comes from a double bond of two Nitrogen atoms, which is known as an azo. This double bond of Nitrogen is synthesized from an amine (NH2), a derivative of ammonia. Ammonia is distilled from nitrogenous animal and vegetable waste products. When the amine interacts with sodium nitrate (NaNO3), a salt usually mined in South America, it forms a diazonium salt. The diazonium salt is then mixed with an auxochrome, which is a group of atoms that attach to the chromophore to modify the ability of that chomophore to absorb light, influencing the intensity of the dye. The auxochromes are often made from activated aromatic compounds, which are often a type of hydrocarbon from petroleum. This combination isolates the double bond of Nitrogen, which creates the red dye. To create the red pigment, the dye is mixed with Barium Sulfate (BaSO4), a white crystalline solid that comes from barite, a mineral found naturally in limestone, hot spring deposits, and hermatite ore.
Kaolin Clay: Kaolin (Al2Si2O5) is a white clay mineral found in rocks throughout the world. The kaolin for Crayola is mined primarily in a deposit that runs from Georgia to Tennessee. It is used as a filler to control the strength and color of the crayons.
Labels: Since the name and location of Crayola's label manufacturer is considered proprietary, I could not find information about the production of Crayola's labels.
Glue: The glue for the labels is made of a mixture of cornstarch and water. To make cornstarch, corn kernels are soaked to remove the outer covering. The germ and the endosperm of the kernel are separated. The starches is removed from the germ and endosperm by washing them. Hydrocyclone or centrifuge machines are used to remove gluten and other substances from the starch. The starch may be further modified and then mixed with water in order to produce glue.
Crayola employs three-hundred full-time employees at their manufacturing plant in Easton, PA. The production of crayons is also a result of the labor of those who work with the raw materials, including the paraffin wax, pigments, kaolin clay, labels, glue, machinery, etc.
Drilling and refining crude oil, the base ingredient for the paraffin wax and an additive in the synthetic dyes, is a process that is often environmentally detrimental. Water-, soil-, and air-pollution is caused by drilling wells on land or beneath the seafloor and from the refining process to make petroleum products. During drilling and transportation, oil spills can cause damage to fragile ecosystems. Improper waste disposal is also an issue. As an alternative to paraffin, Crayola could explore using beeswax or soy wax for their crayons.
The synthetic red pigment that Crayola uses requires complex chemical processes. These processes require large amounts of energy, that is most likely produced from fossil fuels. It may be more environmentally sound for Crayola to use iron oxides or other natural earth pigments for their colors. Iron oxides (Fe2O3) are naturally occurring and make up 5% of the Earth’s crust. The iron oxides can be dried in a rotary drier, ground and separated to get rid of rocks, and burned in a kiln to get rid of excess water. Depending on the temperature of the kiln, the burning process can produce different colors from the iron oxides.
Finally, while the glue for the labels is non-toxic, the production of cornstarch makes use of a crop that is over-exploited in the United States. Corn is grown as a monoculture crop, which decreases biodiversity and can harm the ecosystem. It is most often produced using conventional agriculture, which requires heavy use of herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, which deplete the soil and pollute the ground water. As an alternative to cornstarch glue, Crayola could try using a mixture of unbleached, unenriched organic flour and water.
To avoid safety hazards but still allow public access to the real process of how crayons are made, Crayola could open up a viewing gallery above their factory. This would allow visitors to see the actual production process without the danger of possible interactions or mishaps with the machinery or equipment. Allowing public access into the real factory would give the public a clearer idea of the way that crayons are made, which would open up dialogue that could potentially improve the production process for the environment.
Pigments- A Primer, Dry Color Manufacturers' Association, Alexandria, VA
Environmental Science Earth As a Living Planet (5th ed.) Daniel Botkin and Edward Keller, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005
Chemistry: The Molecular Nature of Matter and Change (4th ed.) Martin Silberberg, McGraw Hill, 2006
Burl Bowman- Technical Services Manager at Hoover Color Corporation
Elmer Wendell and Charlie Doherty- Demonstrators at Crayola Factory