Center for American Progress

It’s Easy Being Green: Green Options for the Back-to-School Shopper
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It’s Easy Being Green: Green Options for the Back-to-School Shopper

Some sustainable savvy can turn the back-to-school frenzy into an educational opportunity.

A fifth grade student looks at school supplies at Staples in Menlo Park, CA, last month. (AP/Paul Sakuma)
A fifth grade student looks at school supplies at Staples in Menlo Park, CA, last month. (AP/Paul Sakuma)

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Summer is rapidly drawing to a close, and that means it’s time for back-to-school shopping. But before you frantically stock up on new school supplies, take a moment to think about how you can green your child’s schooling. Purchasing recycled and used supplies, rethinking how you pack lunches, and redesigning your children’s morning commutes can have substantial cumulative effects on your family’s carbon footprint.

Paper will probably be one of the first items on most back-to-school shopping lists, and it’s usually one of the biggest sources of preventable waste in school supplies. Schools throw out an average of 38 tons of paper every year. That’s 8 million sheets per school—enough to save 646 trees if recycled.

Find out if your children’s school has a paper recycling program in place. You can join the school’s Parent Teacher Association to get more involved in sustainability programs. And make sure you send your children to school with recycled paper made from at least 20 percent postconsumer fiber, which uses no chlorine.

Next, your kids are going to need some pens and pencils to write on all that paper. Don’t fall into the trap of buying a huge number of disposable pens. Americans toss out 1.6 billion pens every year, contributing massive amounts of environmentally harmful and nonrenewable materials to landfills. To cut down on this needless waste buy refillable pens instead. And when it comes to pencils, explore recycled options. Some companies use unexpected materials, such as denim and rolled-up newsprint, to make their recycled pencils.

Textbooks will be one of the most expensive things you’ll need to purchase. Buying used books is one way to spare the earth and your bank account at the same time. Renting textbooks is another cost-effective and eco-conscious option.

Now that your child has all those pens, pencils, reams of paper, and textbooks, how are they going to lug them around? Before going out to buy a brand new backpack, consider a few more sustainable options. Buying used is always a good idea, as with textbooks. Or you could purchase a backpack made from recycled material.

Your kids’ school lunches are another thing you’ll need to start thinking about as summer dwindles. It’s estimated that on average, schoolchildren generate 67 pounds of waste every year thanks to the plastic baggies, brown bags, and other waste used to pack lunches. Eco-conscious lunch boxes can help solve this problem, especially if they come with reusable containers and thermoses. You can also pack a washable cloth napkin, which can help make sure that your children’s lunches are entirely waste free.

This is also a great time to rethink how your kids get to school. If you drive your kids to school everyday consider setting up a carpool system with other families that have kids in the same school as yours. If the bus stops near your home, sending your kids to school on the bus would help cut down on carbon emissions.

And then there are the simpler solutions. Fewer than one-third of the kids who live less than a mile away from their school walk to school. If you live reasonably close to your child’s school consider letting them walk or bike. You can even set up “walkpools” with other schoolchildren and parents in your neighborhood.

Back-to-school shopping can easily devolve into a wasteful, overconsumption spree. But parents in the know limit their purchases to the bare necessities, and make sure they purchase eco-conscious options for the few items their children actually need. Though kids the world over may dread heading back to school, it’s an educational opportunity in itself. You can start teaching them how to be green before the first day of school even begins.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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