When most people think of restaurant waste, they picture spoiled produce and uneaten leftovers. In a single year, the restaurant industry sends roughly 11.4 million tons of food waste to landfills [PDF]. But Sheila Michail Morovati had a different type of restaurant waste on her mind when she took her then-toddler out to eat nearly 10 years ago. Like many places that cater to families, the eatery they went to gave out brand-new boxes of crayons for coloring kid menus, and when the check was paid, Morovati left the barely used crayons behind to be disposed of along with the food scraps.
"I noticed all the tables around me were doing the same thing, and kept thinking: there are budget cuts in education, teacher spending has skyrocketed, [and] there’s no art education left," Morovati tells Mental Floss. "So I just decided to ask some restaurants to start collecting the crayons kids leave behind.”
That initiative she took nearly a decade ago has since ballooned into an international operation. Today, Crayon Collection works in nine countries and all 50 states and has been formally recognized by both the U.S. Congress and Buckingham Palace for its achievements. The organization's goal is simple: salvage crayons in good condition that are destined for the trash and provide them to classrooms in under-served school districts. To date, it has led to the donation of more than 13 million crayons.
Crayon Collection aims to chip away at the 150 million crayons thrown away by restaurants each year, but its impact goes beyond the environment. When school budgets are cut, art classes are usually the first programs to go. And if those schools do have art supplies, teachers are often paying for them out of pocket. But if schools have a family restaurant in their community, they may already have a source of free, practically new crayons at their disposal.
“We’ve been able to completely support [teachers] not just in one area of the classroom, but we’ve also raised awareness about why it’s so important to not put this pressure on teachers,” Morovati says. “It’s just such a sustainable and great win-win.”
The organization sources most of its crayons from restaurants. Because the crayons handed out at eating establishments are only used for a few minutes—if at all—there’s little difference between them and crayons that are bought new from the store. But anyone can donate any gently used crayons they have at home to a collection site. Crayon Collection’s Color Kindness program encourages kids with leftover crayons at the end of the school year to pack them up in bundles and send them to underfunded schools with a handwritten note. Not only do recipients benefit from the gift, but the kid senders get a lesson in paying it forward.
Crayon Collection’s progress shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, the organization broke the Guinness World Record for most crayons donated to charity in 8 hours by collecting more than 1 million crayons for Los Angeles schools. One of the nonprofit’s most recent projects is a collaboration with Penguin Young Readers. The publisher designed special collection boxes branded with characters from the kids’ book The Day the Crayons Quit to send to 3000 restaurants around the country. Anyone can get their community involved by becoming a crayon ambassador and recruiting local restaurants to request a box and save their old crayons for donation. You can also donate to the organization directly through PayPal.
Morovati is confident that if you reach out to your neighborhood restaurants about Crayon Collection, they’ll be receptive to the idea. “Back when I first started, I talked to different restaurants and kept trying to explain the whole process," she says. "Now they understand right off the bat like, 'Oh we’re already on it.' I want this to be a societal norm that people don’t throw away good stuff like these crayons. I hope that that’s a symbolic shift in behavior toward many other things. Plastic straws are one of them, plastic water bottles—virtually anything that still has life to it that could be used.”