back to schoolDear Vanessa,


It’s that time of year, again. I admit I am relieved that school is starting (no offense to my kids, but really … three months!), but I hate how much waste seems to go into the whole process. Any advice on how to cut down on our back-to-school impact (and budget)?


— Mom who needs a vacation from summer vacation


Dear Mom,

Here’s my formula for low-impact school years: (3R + 3R) – (W) x D 

That is, add the three environmental R's (reduce, reuse, recycle), to the three scholastic Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic), subtract whining about what’s cool or not, and multiply by determination.

This formula has to work under some tough realities: 

• 240 pounds of waste are generated every year by one student.

• 18,760 pounds of lunch waste are generated every year by a single elementary school.

• 6 billion pens are thrown away every year.

• And looking on the bright side: 60,000 gallons of gasoline could be saved every day if 6 percent of kids who live a mile or less from school would walk to school instead of being driven.

As autumn approaches, parents are being bombarded with back-to-school marketing. An ever-increasing amount of that market is green — recycled materials, hemp backpacks, organic cotton T-shirts — so parents no longer have to dig to find environmentally safe school supplies. (That means it’s just as easy for parents to purchase that 100-percent post-consumer recycled notebook paper instead of virgin fiber paper.) But always keep in mind: the greenest product is the one you don’t buy.

The weakest link

Of the environmental R's, recycling is the weakest subject. Yes, recycling saves resources, but energy, water and chemicals are used to make and package products whether they are recycled or not. I don’t mean to imply that recycling is a waste — it isn’t. We should recycle everything possible and buy goods made from recycled materials. By all means, if you have to buy new school supplies, purchase products made of recycled and natural materials.

My point is that parents should concentrate on the first two Rs. What do you already own? Notebooks are rarely filled: tear out the used pages from last year’s notebook and use it until it the pages are filled. Sort the pens and pencils around the house before buying new ones. Get only what you need by waiting until after school starts to buy supplies; you’ll avoid items that are not on the teachers' lists. Quality products that last are environmentally sound, and they save money over the long run. Put kids’ names on everything: a reusable water bottle is only Earth-friendly if it is actually used, again and again.

Every step counts

• Pack a waste-free lunch. Trade disposable bags or containers in favor of long-lasting, reusable containers – metal boxes or canvas bags. Buy food and drink in bulk (no juice boxes or single-serving snacks). Pack cloth napkins and reusable utensils. Minimally processed foods take less energy to produce and are generally much healthier. Consider an apple instead of applesauce. Why? Because an apple comes with its own packaging and requires no additives or processing. Applesauce comes in individual plastic or aluminum containers, must be processed, and usually has added sugars, preservatives and other additives. Where's the middle ground? Buy a large glass container of applesauce and dole it out in smaller, reusable glass jars. Waste-free also means not packing more food than your kid is likely to eat. The only things our kids should be leaving at school are orange peels and eggshells — in the compost pile. Want to learn more? Read this article about greening your brown bag lunch.

• Create new fashion with old. Make use of hand-me-downs, shop at thrift and vintage stores, and organize a clothes-swap at school or with your neighbors and family. Everyone will appreciate the money saved.

• Watch out for toxic plastics. Vinyl — polyvinyl chloride or PVC — can be found in an alarming number of kids’ supplies. The production, use and disposal of vinyl used in lunch boxes, backpacks and binders has been linked to cancer and reproductive disorders, and too often these products also contain harmful levels of lead. Reusable plastic bottles and containers may contain bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical, so look for a BPA-free label. Better yet, reuse glass bottles or unlined metal bottles and containers. I’ve written previously about ways to avoid BPA.

• Get involved in your school. Insist on toxin-free markers, paints and other supplies, and urge your school to switch to renewable energy, reduce their waste, and to increase recycling efforts. Work with the cafeteria to use as much local, organic and unpackaged food as possible. Protect the health of the Earth and your children by serving minimally processed or unprocessed foods. And why not make the environment part of the learning process? Environmental studies can be incorporated into any subject matter. In schools where the environment is an integrated part of the curriculum, kids tend to get much more excited about math, science, history and art. (And they score higher than average, too.)

Two websites, Green Schools and the Center for Environmental Education, and this blog, Curriculum Matters, are resources that can help you get inspired and on the right course.

So, where are we going for that vacation from summer vacation?


Also on MNN: 

• Project Green Dorm encourages high school and college students to green their living spaces.

See also:

Back to school tips

How can back-to-school be less wasteful?
Just because it's a new school year doesn't mean that you have to buy all new products.