Back to School and Office Supplies

This month Earth 911 posted an article titled, “Everything Your Child Needs for a Waste-Free School Year” and “Be Prepared: Your Complete Back-to-School Guide” These articles point out some new “green” school and office supplies that are more environmentally friendly than traditional supplies. However; while I appreciate their intent, and yes compostable materials and recycled materials are better than trash-only materials made of virgin/new components, we should remember that reuse and refill are “better and higher uses” for items than recyclable.

Instead of buying 100% new materials, remember Reuse and Refill. Let’s break this down.

  • Notebooks and paper
    • Do you have any notebooks from last year that you forgot about? Perfectly usable and brand new notebooks are available for super low prices (yes lower than the normal back-to-school prices) at Austin Creative Reuse. They also have composition books, printer paper, constructions paper, stationary, notepads, Post-it notes, etc.
    • Target sells a lot of recycled content notebooks and planners including the brand Greenroom, mentioned in the Earth 911 articles. Check the price sticker, inside cover, or the back cover for % recycled content on paper products. Non-toxic soy-based ink is great if you can find that too.
    • Don’t forget to check your recycled content on printer paper too.
    • Even Post-it notes come in recycled content paper now. It’s only 30% and it’s still shrink-wrapped in plastic (sigh 3M), and you usually have to order it online as the brick-and-mortar stores don’t tend to carry it, but it’s good next steps. If you’re ordering online anyway or for store pick-up, and it’s an option, consider purchasing recycled content.
  • Pens
    • Everyone is fascinated by “recycled water bottle” pens, but the best pen is one that is refillable and these aren’t. You can’t refill them or recycle them unless you spend the time to dismantle them to take out the ink stick and the metal spring.
    • The biodegradable pens in one of the articles isn’t really biodegradable. It’s selectively compostable only in certain environments and only part of the pen will break down. The rest is still trash.
    • Find a good refillable pen that you like. Buy refills. Most refills come in numerous colors and widths. I wrote contracts with a Fine tip but I prefer a Bold tip for letter writing. Fine tips or Extra Fine tips will look more in scale on college rule paper.
    • I remember being reluctant to switch from pencils to pens when it was required in school due to the permanency of ink. Don’t forget about erasable pens! Pilot brand came out with a retractable, erasable, refillable ink pen, the Pilot FriXion Clicker Retractable Gel Ink Pen. Check it out!
    • If you’re feeling really green, TerraCycle created a Pens, Pencils and Markers Zero Waste Boxyou can purchase to recycle all the bits. Yes, it’s expensive but it’s the best option to recycle this product class that we have right now.
    • Staples has a really large selection of pen refills if you have trouble finding your favorite.
  • Pencils
    • Same thing here. Refillable is best. Find a sturdy, refillable mechanical pencil, decide which width of lead (it’s actually graphite) you like, and refill. The little plastic refill boxes can be recycled. I like to write with a 0.7 mm lead because it’s wider and I break the lead less. 0.5 mm lead is the most common, but both sizes are readily available. Don’t forget you can refill the eraser on mechanical pencils too! I always broke off those cap erasers you can add to yellow pencils; I guess I erase too hard! Math class flashbacks anyone?!
    • The recycled pencils in the article are okay. Recycled paper or wood pulp is better than virgin paper or wood pulp. Could that newspaper have been better used as new newspaper? We don’t have all the information on the quality of paper that is used for the pencils so we can’t say for certain. A lot of stores now carry recycled content/paper pulp pencils if you are required to purchase traditional pencils so keep your eyes peeled.
    • Spend the money to buy a good pencil sharpener if you need one that will work a long time, well made, and has storage big enough you won’t loose it or get annoyed at how frequently you need to empty the sharpener.
    • Pencils shavings should be trashed. The coloring on pencils is paint. It should not go in the compost carts.
  • Lunchbox
    • The best lunchbox is a reused one. Buy a sturdy one to begin with and use it year after year. Take care of it.
    • “Invest in stainless steel lunch boxesreusable snack and juice pouches, and reusable utensils for a waste-free lunch hour.” Don’t forget the cloth napkins!
    • My two year old son loves his reusable food pouch/smoothie holder from Squeasy Snacker. They have lots of sizes and colors and it’s super easy to clean.
    • Bento boxes, Tupperware/Gladware-like containers, tiered containers, and reusable lunch bags/zippered bags are great if they replace single-use/disposable items like Ziploc bags or “baggies.” Please remember to use what you have in your home first, see if you can find items second-hand or free, use up what you have left, then buy a new “green” item to make things more zero waste going forward.
    • Snacks: It’s “greener,” and probably cheaper, if you buy a normal size box of snack and then measure out a serving size (or less) into a reusable container. They make silicon zippered bags if you like the zippered bag idea, space saving, and silicone. This saves on disposable zippered bags or the single serving snack bag that is possibly recyclable but it’s only recyclable through a TerraCycle program. If you have time or the interest, or want a new family activity, a lot of the popular snacks can be homemade to reduce packaging even further. Try making your own trail mix, crackers or breakfast bars for a fun new experience.
    • A 100% plastic-free lunch box does exist! Life Without Plastic created one. Check their website for different colors.
  • Water bottle
    • The best water bottle is a reusable one. Buy a sturdy one to begin with and use it year after year. Take care of it. Single-use water bottles are designed for single-use only/one time. If you reuse a single-use water bottle it will start to deteriorate and degrade at the microscopic level. It may be exposing the liquid inside to micro-plastics and/or germs since the product isn’t designed for repeated use.
    • Do your research to determine what is the safest material for your family’s health. We use stainless steel but if you prefer aluminum, glass, or plastic, buy a good one and take care of it. Clean it regularly, especially focusing on the lid, threads and any gaskets.
    • Warning: Most reusable metal water bottles have plastic lids or plastic that will touch the water/liquid inside. Check the pictures, reviews, open the item in the store if this is a concern/important for you. I have a Tree Tribe stainless steel water bottle with a stainless steel lid. I love it. It’s not as light as a lot of other options, but it’s not too heavy either, and I’m not sure it would fit in a backpack side pocket, but it holds 20 ounces, stays cold, is sturdy and sits in the car cup holder.
    • Reminder that most parks prohibit glass and schools may as well so you might want to go with another material.
  • Wardrobe
    • We have been encouraged to shop for new school clothes each year. If kids outgrew their clothes, yes they need “new to them” clothes, but they don’t have to be brand new with the tags still on. There are great thrift/second hand stores in Austin and several children’s consignment stores. These clothes are size-sticker and price-tag free a lot of times! Since kids grow out of their clothing so quickly, most of these clothes look like new and a lot still do have the tags on them!
  • Backpack or computer bag/laptop bag
    • Same as above. Society teaches us that we need a new backpack, lunchbox and clothes each year. If your backpack broke or tore, and you can’t get it repaired, either locally or through the retailer, then of course you need a new backpack.
    • There are tons of backpacks and computer bags at second hand/thrift stores. They’re usually in great condition too. Tip: you may need to shop off-season, that is not right before the new school year or a semester starts.
    • Try to buy timeless colors and patterns that will be of interest for several years so the owners will want to keep the bags.
    • Buy sturdy material backpacks. They may not be as “in” or popular, but you can make them even more cool and unique with key chains, buttons, patches, ribbons, etc.
  • Books and textbooks
    • See if your school library or a local public library has the textbook or supplemental reading you need.
    • Consider renting textbooks instead of buying and selling them back. I’ve been told this is cheaper and the books are always available. Rentals are available for paper books and electronic versions.

I want to give a shout out to Austin Creative Reuse again. Please see my post for them entitled, “Austin Creative Reuse: School Supplies, Crafts & Hobbies.” They participate/recognize Tax Free Weekend and they prep for hardcore back to school shopping. My child isn’t old enough for school yet so I’ve never been during Tax Free Weekend, and the space is small, so just be prepared for anything.

Austin Creative Reuse has lanyards, rulers, key chains, patches, buttons, paint, pencils, makers, crayons, chalk, folders, paper, Post-it notes, stickers, string, yard, stamps, etc.

Please remember to use what you have in your home first. Check closets, cabinets, clean out rooms, etc. This would be a great time to consolidate all the school and office supplies, and lunch materials into one spot. Look for items second-hand or free (our neighborhood Marketplace group has this kind of stuff up for free all the time), use up what you have first, then buy a new “green” item to make things more zero waste going forward.

Zero waste doesn’t have to mean “I have a bunch of really cool reusable stuff.” A lot of the “zero waste” products are made of new “virgin” materials. That’s not a bad thing, just please be aware of it. Zero waste can also mean “how can I be really creative with what I have, or do I even need “X” to begin with?” For example, do you need straws? Maybe you do if you have sensitive teeth, or a medical condition. But if you just enjoy their color and shape, maybe you can stop buying straws all together and save some money! If not, if you love or need them, use your plastic straws up first, throw the used ones in the trash (they clog the recycling machines!), then purchase paper straws that can be composted if you want to dispose of your straws, or glass, metal or bamboo straws (they come with cute little cleaning brushes and pouches) if you want to maintain a reusable straw. I have one straw in my house, it is glass and it is the “smoothie” width and I use it for smoothies. I get more smoothie this way instead of drinking straight from the jar and having all the smoothie go up and stay on the sides. Does this only happen to me? Oh, okay. *Reminder that most parks prohibit glass and schools may as well so you may want to go with another material if you plan on packing a reusable straw in lunches.

I know school has already started for most of you. This is to get you thinking about how you’ll address supplies when you run out, where you’ll shop, and to get you prepared if you are interested in taking up the zero waste/less waste gauntlet of changing how your school requests/recommends school supplies.

Also of interest:
Infographic: Pens and Pencils by the Numbers
5 Sustainable School Swaps for a Green School Year
7 Strategies for a Zero-Waste Lunch

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