Back-to-school supplies that are better for the environment

A new school year brings the excitement of new teachers, new friends, and new opportunities for learning. It also comes with a yet another school supply shopping list.

If you’re trying to create a more environmentally-conscious household, or encourage your children to adopt sustainable practices of their own, consider the back-to-school season an opportunity to make different choices. From plastic-free school supplies to recycled products, sometimes it’s as easy as swapping one product for another in your cart.

It’s vital to note, however, that individual choices aren’t the solution to the global climate crisis. Also, as a parent, you should never feel shame for being unable to substitute the products you buy with environmentally-friendly alternatives. Take these suggestions simply as that, and consider other ways to bring the global climate justice conversation into your children’s education and daily lives. Scroll on for more on that front.

1. Find sustainable materials for backpacks, clothes, and more

While it’s ideal to reduce overall consumption, that’s often a difficult task for young kids and families just trying to make it through the school week. (How many pencils have we as a society collectively lost?)

Instead, consider buying products made from recycled, natural, or locally-sourced materials to offset those purchases, including new clothes and fabric items like backpacks. For example, backpacks made from natural fibers like cotton — there’s even some made out of banana plant fibers — are a renewable option and often more durable and easier to maintain than backpacks made from plastics.

Debate around cotton’s environmental impact has grown with concerns about the water and energy required to produce the material. But it’s the better option for reducing non-degradable waste in global landfills. To shop for cotton more thoughtfully, keep an eye out for products and brands that are produced under the Better Cotton Initiative, a program founded by the World Wildlife Fund that outlines global cotton manufacturing standards.

Choosing more durable fabric products might benefit your budget in the long run. Check out backpacks from a brand like Terra Threads, which offers colorful backpack options made from recycled materials and also supports the national nonprofit Feeding America. Other options include this fully recyclable nylon backpack from Jem & Bea and recycled bags from major brands like JanSport.

Though your child might want a brand-new backpack to match their new school year personality, simple backpacks can be a blank slate for customization. Offer to let your kid add patches, pins, and even drawings to reflect their own personality. When in doubt, try to find a bag brand like Fjällräven that offers lifetime warranties and repairs so you can extend the life of your kid’s items.

And if you have to go the plastics route, look for bags made out of nonwoven polypropylene, a more durable plastic that will last longer, requires less uses to offset conventional plastic production, and is more easily recyclable.

You can also try pencils, pens, and markers that are made from recycled materials, such as those sold by Eco Pen Club (they also have highlighters!), Wisdom Supply Co. (includes unpainted pencils and colored pencils), and TreeSmart, a brand started more than a decade ago to recycle old newspapers and water bottles into fresh school supplies. For older kids and teens, check out refillable pens that can be reused for years. Most big brands like Pilot offer pen refills, or you can switch to old-school fountain pens, like those from Lamy.

The National Crayon Recycling Program saves pounds of old crayons from landfills and recycles them into new art supplies that are available for purchase. They also provide guidance for hosting your own crayon recycling drive.

Eco-friendly crayons offer alternatives to frequently-used paraffin wax crayons, like these beeswax crayons from Eartheasy. Crayola has made commitments to reducing its environmental impact as well, pledging to use sustainable wood sources. The brand previously hosted a marker take-back program for customers, which is has been on pause during the pandemic. It currently offers tips for recycling or even repurposing last year’s art supplies

2. Choose plastic-free daily school supplies

An easy choice is to try out some non-plastic, perhaps stainless steel lunch boxes or bento boxes, for your kids’ school-time meals. PlanetBox, an environmentally-friendly school brand, sells three sizes of stainless steel lunch boxes and even a lunch tray, as well as lunch sacks, lunch tote bags, and snack pouches made out of recycled materials.

Non-plastic pencil cases are a creative alternative to the abundance of plastic in classrooms. Stainless steel, wood, or cloth pouches are good, durable options for students. Check out Wisdom Supply Co.’s “zero-waste” pencil tin or its recyclable aluminum case, or browse the company’s sustainable paper supply kit that includes the pencil tin, a binder, notebooks, and folders. Terra Thread also sells cotton-based pencil pouches. When shopping in-store, look for pouches made from materials like canvas and polyester, rather than plastic-based ones.

Reusable sandwich and snack bags might already be a part of your household’s daily routine, so try using them in your kids’ lunches as well. Beloved brands like Stasher offer a variety of sizes and types of reusable bags, but even store-brand reusable bags from places like Target and Walmart are a good swap.

3. Prioritize recycled paper products

While recycling isn’t as straightforward as it seems, thanks in part to confusing, inaccessible recycling processes, nor the most the most impactful climate action, paper is one area where the recycling industry has come the closest to figuring it out, with at least or more than 63 percent of paper products recycled each year. So, you can feel good recycling your kid’s used paper products, as well as purchasing recycled paper products.

Try to only buy notebooks, workbooks, notecards, and binders made from recycled paper and cardboard. Sustainable shopping hub EarthHero sells several brands of fully recycled paper products, like the eco-friendly notebooks and ruled filler paper made by the brand Decomposition. This is a good option if your kids are drawn to fun patterns and prints, too. Decomposition also sells binders made from 85 percent post-consumer waste materials. Other brands like EcoPaper offer notebooks and paper products made from entirely non-tree materials, like banana plant waste. And popular stationery brands like Five Star and Oxford also offer recycled paper notebooks that you can most likely find in your local stores. 

If you have an older student with an interest in tech or a desire to invest in reusable products, you can also swap out paper notebooks for alternatives like the RocketBook, which lets you save handwritten notes digitally and then erase the pages for repeated use. 

4. Offset back-to-school purchases with activism and education

More important than any of these products is using the back-to-school season as an opportunity to educate both yourself and your child about the legacy of environmental activism, the state of global climate change, and activists who are fighting to address the crisis.

Consider incorporating volunteer opportunities related to environmental advocacy and activism into your child’s after-school hobbies. This can be as simple as at home composting, gardening, or participating in recycling drives. You might also look into (or start) an environmental activism club on your child’s school campus. Guides like this one from WeAreTeachers might be helpful, or you can reach out to local chapters of nationwide groups, like a Sunrise Movement Hub

If you have the means, donate to organizations advocating for top-level, government and corporate changes to address the climate crisis. Youth-based organizations like the Sunrise Movement, started by youth activists Sara Blazevic and Varshini Prakash, and Earth Uprising, founded by 17-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, rally the next generation of activists. Other organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Sierra Club are doing critical work as well. Many also offer free education and organizing resources.

Remember to model positive environmental behavior for your kids. For back-to-school shopping, avoid purchasing from large, profit-driven corporations like Amazon, which contributes to global waste and transportation emissions. It can be difficult, but try to patronize shops in your own neighborhood when possible. You can use websites and apps like Goodbuy, a resource connecting shoppers to local, small businesses.

Finally, add to your child’s education with lessons about environmental and climate science, and consider joining other parents and educators in the fight for a broader climate education in schools. Many activists around the country are actively working for changes to state curricula that would make climate education a mandatory aspect of your child’s education, because — shocker— it’s not widespread yet. If you live in a state with minimal climate education (or even if you don’t) consider supplementing your kid’s learning with environmental lessons, too. You can find resources on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, check out NASA’s Climate Kids website, or read Common Sense Media’s guide to climate education tools. You can even listen to science and news-based podcasts for kids like The Activators, which features the work of young environmental activists and researchers.

Within these conversations, try to avoid climate doom and anxiety and focus on stories of young people paving the way forward. Encourage your children to make changes, and step in when necessary to make sustainability a priority. The fate of our planet and the beginning of a new school year aren’t exactly on the same level, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to quell both anxieties at the same time.

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