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Back to School with Sustainability in Mind

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Perhaps the most important lesson for students today is the value of sustainable practices.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Aug 28, 2015

School bus
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.

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?

Saves us all a bundle, puts our money to work for good causes, and keeps us from contributing to the economy of waste.

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

School 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

ECOlunchbox
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 replacements aren’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 a variety of reusable pouches made from silicone or polyethylene, currently believed to be safer than other plastic materials (though that may certainly change as research on plastics continues).
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

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
Environmental Working Group’s Back-to-School-Guide
Tips for Sustainable Wear

Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at her new blog, HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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