Reduce & Reuse School Supplies

From the Bigelow PTO, June 13, 2020 – 

The Bigelow PTO invites you to think about school supplies in a sustainable way.  

The end of the year is a great opportunity to embrace our sustainable values with our children and show them how they can personally take climate action. Going together with the kids through their books, notes and school materials can be a valuable experience – in economic and environmental terms – and help reducing waste at the end of the school year by practicing the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

There’s a reason reduce & reuse come before recycle – not just because it sounds good, but it’s the order in which we should approach sustainability. Here are some tips to use with your child when cleaning out their school supplies:

  • Empty backpacks, pencil cases, binders, folders.
  • Clean everything (a swipe of rubbing alcohol can remove marker and make everything looks like new).
  • Repair or patch what you can. 
  • Organize pens, pencils, markers, scissors, calculators, etc.
  • Take out the used pages of notebooks and evaluate what can be reused in school or at home.

You will note that you can really reduce the purchase of new supplies because a lot can be reused next year. And we can all celebrate how much energy, water, resources and money we will have saved in our community! 

Check out more resources:

“Back to School with Sustainability in Mind”

Original post from Eartheasy – 

The back-to-school supply list can be bewildering enough on its own, but throw in environmental considerations, and you may find your head spinning. Don’t despair — below are some strategies for limiting the eco-impact of sending kids back to school.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.

The Other 4 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink

Though marketers work hard to tempt our kids with new, shiny back-to-school gear each fall, by reusing what you have and buying used, you can minimize kids’ back-to-school footprints. Thrift stores, consignment shops, and secondhand stores have multiplied in recent years, and many rummage sales have loads of kids’ gear. You can often find almost-new clothes and equipment for a fraction of the cost of buying new, leaving you with more money for high-quality (and long-lasting) or sustainably made items when you do need to buy new.

Littler kids probably won’t care much whether they’re wearing last year’s outfits, hand-me-downs, or thrift-shop finds, as long as they’re comfortable and have fun designs. Our neighborhood has a thriving hand-me-down chain; my 2-year-old’s clothes have been worn by at least four other kids, and her outgrown duds go to two more kids (and presumably more after that) till everything is worn to shreds and heads to textile recycling or the rag bin. We rarely need to buy anything, and when we do, most comes from garage sales or one of the local used clothing stores, which support community programs. Saves us all a bundle, puts our money to work for good causes, and keeps us from contributing to the economy of waste. And consider: If we bought it all new, how much less would we have for things far more important to our kids’ well-being, like healthy food and enrichment activities?

Older kids may be more conscious of style and push back more, but if they’ve absorbed your ‘used-is-better’ ethic, they might be on board with secondhand gear. Your back-to-school preparations can serve as teaching moments: Develop guidelines together to help kids dress the way they want without consuming unnecessary resources. Begin by evaluating what they already have, and together figure out what gaps need filling. Then give them a budget and let them decide how to spend it, beginning with your local secondhand stores. The lure of the mall might diminish when they discover that a big bag full of like-new clothes costs less than one new pair of jeans.

Likewise, ask if last year’s backpack and lunch case can make it another year and if not, seek secondhand replacements before purchasing new ones. For clothes and gear you do buy new, look for recycled content and sustainably-grown fibers. Also try strategies like line-drying and mending to help extend the usable life of kids’ gear.

Sustainable Supplies

This part of back-to-school shopping can get pretty complicated. Teachers want certain types of notebooks, markers, and so on, and sustainable options are not always easy to find. Start by figuring out what you have already; you’ve likely stashed a variety of writing utensils to fill the pencil case and don’t need to buy a whole new pack. Can partly-used notebooks serve another year if you remove the used sheets? When you do need to buy new, look for notebooks made with recycled content and pencils sourced from sustainably-managed forests (look for the FSC logo). In recent years, consumer demand for such products have made them more readily available.

If your supply list includes paper towels, wipes, and hand sanitizers, try sending in the eco-friendly options that have become increasingly easy to find. Likely no one will complain; perhaps your teacher will even come to prefer and recommend the healthier alternatives.


Limiting the Impact of Lunch

Perhaps even more significant than the once-a-year school purchases are the daily impacts of school lunches. The EPA estimates that each student in the United States contributes 67 pounds of lunch waste annually, adding up to well over a million tons of preventable trash. Thankfully, parents and school systems have begun working to bring this alarming number down.

Healthy, no-waste lunches take a little bit of planning but have become easier with the proliferation of lunch box options and reusable containers of various types. Everywhere you turn at this time of year, someone is promoting deals on single-serve applesauce and drink boxes for school lunches. Just say no to the extra waste and try these nifty reusable tools instead:

  • Bento boxes

    Bento boxes have caught on in a big way, and the choices can be overwhelming. If you’re looking to avoid exposure to plastics, there are some excellent metal options available. Though you will find many plastic products labeled “BPA-free,” recent research suggests that BPA’s replacementsaren’t necessarily any safer, leaching chemicals you probably don’t want your kids to ingest. Smaller metal containers for soup, yogurt, dips, and sauce help you skip those plastic-intensive, single-use options at the grocery store. There are also new bamboo mess kits made from 90% natural materials (bamboo, starch, and resin) and perfect for lunchtime.

  • Kids’ metal drink bottles

    No need for single-serve milk or juice cartons, saving tons of unnecessary paper and plastic from entering the waste stream.

  • Reusable sandwich and snack bags

    Made from platinum silicone, reusable sandwich bags can be washed or wiped and used again—and again. They don’t contain plastic and won’t end up in the landfill, since they can be infinitely recycled at the end of their lifespan. Other options include sealed silicone bags and reusable lidsto top your mason jars.

  • Beeswax wraps

    These wax-infused cloths hug sandwiches, fruit, and dry snacks with ease, replacing plastic cling-wrap. Wipe clean using cold water at the end of the day and they’re ready to use again.

  • Utensils

    Have a set that travels to school, or just use what you already have. Why buy throwaways when it’s easy to just wash everything at the end of the day with all the other dishes?

  • Cloth napkins

    A set of small cloth napkins (or even baby wash cloths) will keep your child from throwing away hundreds of paper napkins each year.

As with so many “green” alternatives, the cost of the reusable options is quickly recouped by the savings from skipping disposable versions.

What to pack in all this great reusable gear? You get to pass on packaged convenience foods, which besides creating a lot of unnecessary trash, are rarely healthy. A sandwich or leftovers plus some fresh fruit and vegetables takes little time to prepare and will ensure your kids are powering their day with real food.

There’s a cottage industry in Pinterest-worthy kids’ lunches these days, so check out some pictures of inspiring bentos packed by green, health-conscious parents. Involve kids in the menu planning and prep; they’ll love helping make fun items like veggie sticks for dipping in hummus, pocket or wrap sandwiches, and homemade muffins or granola bars.

For more back-to-school recipes check out the School Year Survival Cookbook by Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh.

Get Your School Involved

Many schools have joined campaigns that work to reduce school waste and students’ exposure to toxins. Some have started composting programs, a great learning experience for students that teachers can connect to science, math, or other curricular elements. If your school does not yet compost, join forces with other parents and begin an initiative of your own.

A school garden is another excellent option for increasing sustainability at school. Studies have shown that children with access to school gardens benefit from more than the vegetables. Talk to your child’s principal or parent advisory committee for more information on what’s possible in your area.

Don’t forget to consider travel to and from school and activities. Walk, bike, or carpool whenever possible, and when you do drive, don’t let your car idle in the pickup lane. You’ll save gas, reduce emissions, and protect all those school kids from pollutants. Engage other parents to do likewise, and together we can work to make this school year more sustainable.

Further Resources

Center for Ecoliteracy’s Rethinking School Lunch Guide
Tips for Sustainable Wear

by Susannah Shmurak, 2015, updated in August 2019

Back to School Tip: “Avoid School Supplies Laced with Toxic Chemicals”

Original post from EWG Children’s Health Initiative  – 

As the first day of school is fast approaching, a new study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group(USPIRG) found harmful chemicals in everyday school supplies that could be in your child’s classroom or backpack. Here’s what all parents should know about this new report:

Crayons – The study tested six brands of crayons for asbestos, the toxic building and insulation material that causes mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. One major brand, Playskool Crayons, had detectable levels of asbestos. These findings are consistent with EWG Action Fund’s 2015 report that found traces of asbestos in crayons and other children’s toys sold nationwide.

Markers – USPIRG tested a number of markers for toxic volatile solvents such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which are petroleum substances also found in fracking wastewater.  EXPO scented and The Board Dudes dry erase markers had detectable levels of these harmful chemicals.

Binders – Three binder brands were tested for phthalates, plastic-softening chemicals that have links to early puberty in girls and harm to the reproductive system. The brand that tested positive for phthalates was Jot 1-inch 3-ring binders, which are sold at Dollar Tree. In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned six phthalates in children’s toys, and in bottles, cups and pacifiers for children 3 years old and under, yet these chemicals are still found in products children use on an everyday basis.

Water Bottles – USPIRG also highlighted two water bottles that tested positive for lead and were recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The two bottles in question were Base Brands Children’s Reduce Hydro Pro Furry Friends water bottle sold on Amazon and at Costco and the GSI Outdoors Kids’ insulated water bottles sold at L.L. Bean. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that impairs children’s intellectual development and alters their behavior and ability to concentrate. As the lead crisis in America rages on, we recently learned that testing for lead in the water of both primary schools and day care centers is woefully lacking.

Stay tuned to the EWG Children’s Health Initiative site for the latest breaking news and analysis on all things regarding kids’ health.

By Robert Coleman, Project Manager EWG (August 28, 2018).

Back to School Tip: “REUSE School Supplies and Shop Eco-Friendly!”

Original post from Green Newton – 

Preparing for the new school year presents a great opportunity for kids (and parents) to learn environmental lessons. During summer vacation, set aside school supplies that can be reused come September, including notebooks with blank pages, pens and pencils, and paper that was used only on one side (use the other side for scrap paper). Also, clean and repair backpacks for future use, and try to reuse or recycle electronic devices.

Before you shop, make a list of what you already have for the school year and buy only what you need, and in the store, choose paper, pens. and pencils with recycled content. Look for nontoxic products that aren’t sold with a lot of packaging, and explore ways to reuse the product packaging. Resale shops such as Goodwill now have office and school supply sections. Try organizing a school supply swap with local families. It could be the start of a fun annual tradition!

School Supply Drive for The Second Step

The Second Step is a community of survivors, advocates, and volunteers who foster the safety, stability, and well-being of those who have experienced domestic violence.

You can help students of survivors of domestic abuse by donating gently-used school supplies in good condition at a donation drop-off box in the rotunda at Newton City Hall (1000 Commonwealth Ave., Newton). Sturdy backpacks are a critical need.