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Reduce, reuse, and recycle your school supplies

The older kids get, the longer their school supplies can endure. An elementary school child may wear out most school supplies each year or exhaust them as part of the classes' shared supply. But a tween or teen can reuse many school supplies over and over throughout junior high and high school, and this is encouraging news for the planet. If we want kids to grow up green, we need to instill healthy shopping habits from a young age.

Shopping smarter for school supplies is not the only way to create a greener back-to-school. There are many ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle academic supplies, including packing earth-friendly lunches from home. See how many of these strategies can be implemented and improve your green game each year you have kids in school. Enlist your child's help in thinking beyond the back-to-school sale and you will teach them valuable lessons about global citizenship.

Plan ahead on purchases. While last-minute sales on cheaply made items may be tempting, look for back to school products that will last. Select a backpack that will be around for two or three years, not merely one. Water bottles can disappear frequently, especially if they are the expensive, adorable kind. So choose a less fetching, sturdier water bottle that is less likely to need replacing. If you pause to think long-term on each purchase, you will make wiser choices in the long run.

Share the wealth. Host a back-to-school potluck, school supply and clothing swap about a month before school starts. Invite friends from the neighborhood with kids a bit younger and older than your children and have each guest bring a few higher ticket and lower ticket items in good condition to trade. Consider sorting supplies into bags by school grade for swapping. Children often tire of what they already have, whereas someone's lightly used school supplies will feel new to them.

Hit the resale shop. Shopping green means being strategic. If you go to the retail store first, you will likely fill your cart with brand new, non-sustainable items. But if you start at your local resale shop, you are more likely to find clothes, supplies, and organizational products to sustainably equip your students for the entire academic year. Resale items also don't typically come in bulky packaging, but be sure to recycle whatever packaging you acquire this season. If things wear out before next year, replace them on an as-needed basis.

Donate your overflow. Even if you shop smart on supplies every year and swap with friends and neighbors, there is a good chance you will still have some extra school items that are no longer wanted or needed. Don't throw them away! Donate them to your local resale shop by midsummer, so they can be out on display for the upcoming school year. Your school supply trash can become another family's green treasure.

Find recycled products. Once you've done your green diligence, you may still require a few things from the retail store, but never fear. If you track down highly recycled, post-consumer products like notebook paper, recycled wood pencils, and even sticky notes, you can feel good about your purchases. Ask local retail salespeople to direct you to the recycled products areas of their store. Fortunately, the selection of sustainable products increases each year.

Support the class. Remember, whenever students share supplies, waste is reduced. So if you are asked to contribute school supplies to your school classroom, go ahead and participate and even contribute a bit extra, if you can. Some families in your community will likely not be able to afford to pitch in. Check with your child's new teachers one week after school starts to discover classroom supply gaps you can fill.

Model sustainability. The best way to get your kids interested in thrift shopping is to do it together when they are young. If they see you scoring designer deals and wearing them with satisfaction, kids will learn to thrift shop first and retail shop second by the time they are old enough to control their spending. Having an annual or semi-annual family yard sale is another great way to model making room for the new in a sustainable, community-building manner. At the very least, gather used clothing from your family members to donate to the local resale shop at least two or three times a year.

Opt for organic cotton. Cotton is environmentally friendly because it is sustainable, renewable, and biodegradable. Just make sure the cotton you purchase is both organic and pesticide-free. Toxin-free cotton is not harmful to farmers, workers, consumers and wildlife ecosystems. You can shop online to find new-to-you brands that make sustainable cotton clothing and products.

Send lunch from home. Collaborating with kids on creating healthy school lunches that suit their tastes is an opportunity to model healthy eating for a lifetime. Check out the tips for healthier and less expensive school lunches below. A favorite homemade treat can still be included as long as the rest of the lunch and snack choices are nutritious. Encourage students to drink lots of water throughout the day rather than sugary beverages.

10 tips for homemade lunches

At the grocery store, skip pre-packaged foods with excess sugar and preservatives and try these savvy shopping strategies instead:

  1. Plan lunches for the week on Sundays.
  2. Start each day right with a hearty breakfast.
  3. Make protein the star of each lunch.
  4. Include organic veggies and fruit.
  5. Shop local and in-season.
  6. Choose whole-grain breads.
  7. Encourage drinking water at school all day.
  8. Shop the bulk section for inexpensive variety.
  9. Use up dinner leftovers each week.
  10. Hand-portion snacks for mid-morning and after-school.

Reusable school supplies

These purchases are well worth the investment and will last for years:

  • Insulated lunch bag
  • Non-breakable water bottle
  • Re-freezable ice cube pack
  • BPA-free food storage containers
  • Washable fabric food pouches
  • Dishwasher-safe bento boxes
  • Silverware from home
  • Cloth napkins
  • Energy Star® computers and electronics
  • Resale T-shirts, jeans, dress clothes and school supplies
  • Organic cotton clothing
  • Annual daily/weekly/monthly planner
  • Athletic bag

Reuse last year's

  • Backpack
  • Combination lock
  • Pencil pouch
  • Insulated lunch tote
  • Solar-powered calculator
  • Manual metal pencil sharpener in recycled breath mint tin
  • Rulers, protractor and compasses
  • Pens, markers and highlighters
  • Scissors
  • Note cards and unused paper
  • Binders
  • USB drive
  • Athletic equipment

Author and journalist Christina likes to think about the long-term, big-picture effects of her actions. She takes pride in gradually becoming a more sustainable parent. She is a proponent of progress rather than perfection.


See our related articles:

It's easy goin' green - 65 small changes to make a big difference

Calgary on the cheap: Ten money saving tips for back to school

Thrifting 101

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