Back to School: Eco-Education

Though the heat is still in full swing, summer is quickly segueing into Back to School season for parents and kids everywhere. Unfortunately for the planet, schools are a big source of waste, from disposable lunches to last year's school clothes to half-used notebooks. The average college student, for example, creates over 600 pounds of waste per year, including more than 300 pounds of paper and hundreds of disposable cups. Luckily, though, there are ways to reduce this waste, from elementary school up through college and the work world.

Before you shop, see what you've got at home already. Binders and notebooks can often be used over and over, as can pens, pencils, and backpacks. When going shopping, try to make a list and stick to it - cutting down on impulse buys will help keep you from having supplies you don't end up needing. Buy items that are durable (so that you can use them again in the future) and non-toxic. Choose reusable items over disposable ones, such as refillable pens and pencils and rechargeable batteries. There are also many school items that can be made from former waste products - pencils made from old money, old jeans, or old newspapers, pens made from old tires and scrap wood, soybean crayons, and even biodegradeable cutlery made from potatoes. Old money pencils and rulers are available from GreenLine Paper (, as are many other innovative and earth-friendly items. Pencils and colored pencils made from Forest Stewardship Council certified wood are available from Forest Choice (

More than a third of the waste stream is made up of paper products (more than 80 million tons in 2005), so when you're out school supply shopping, consider buying recycled loose-leaf, notebooks, sticky notes, facial tissues, and printer paper, and be sure to recycle all that you can. Also try to buy products that come in as little packaging as possible and buy only as much as you will be able to use. Check the labels on everything to see the percentage of recycled content (the more the better, especially if a percentage is post-consumer). Re-use notebooks from previous years that are not full yet and use the backs of used paper items for scrap paper. Most office supply stores have a variety of recycled paper products available, including printer paper and sticky notes, but you can also order online from retailers such as GreenLine Paper.

Aside from paper products, a big waste culprit in schools is the disposable lunch. The average primary/secondary school student throws away 67 pounds of trash per year in disposable lunches alone, adding up to over 18,000 pounds of lunch waste each year for an average-size elementary school. Meanwhile, 67% of kids say they buy junk food and soda while at school, and millions of children across the country are obese. If you're currently using paper bags, consider buying a reusable lunch bag or lunch box (and make sure it is PVC-free). There are a variety of stylish and earth-friendly meal-carrying options for children and adults, including Built NY, Mimi the Sardine, Mr. Bento, and LapTop Lunches. offers a simple $7 lunch sack that the reusable equivalent of a paper bag, and offers a wide selection, including the majority of the above-mentioned brands, which are also available directly from their manufacturers.

The contents of your child's lunch (or yours) matter too: individually packaged foods mean wrappers in the trash, and those sandwich baggies aren't helping either. It is cheaper in the long run to buy your lunch supplies in larger packages and send them to school in a reusable container. Many of the available lunch boxes and sacks have compartments built in for this purpose, but you can also just buy a few Tupperware containers (many are cheap enough now that you won't even mind too terribly much if your child loses one now and then). You can also give your child (or yourself) fruits like apples, oranges, or bananas, which don't require any packing. For sandwiches, opt to buy a Wrap-n-Mat ( instead of using sandwich bags. These cloth covers with velcro closures keep your sandwich fresh and fold out into a placemat, making them useful for any eating on the go, from school to work to picnics. If you'd like to stick to disposable wraps, then opt for wax paper or aluminum foil over plastics, as these can be recycled.

Though buying recycled products is often more expensive, options are widening every day as demand increases. Buying durable and reusable products will save you money in the long run, as well as saving the school the costs of disposal of all of that waste. The switch might be easier than you think, as many new products utilize innovative design that appeals to kids. Though packing lunches might take a little more time without all those single-serving packs, getting your child involved with choosing the items and packing them up may give them ownership of their lunch and make them more likely to eat it (a large part of food waste is food that goes uneaten).

Read More on Conservation Corner
Volume 4, Issue 16, Posted 11:35 AM, 07.24.2008