Greening Back to School

This post is my contribution to the Green Moms Carnival.  This month’s carnival is hosted by Mindful Momma and the topic is “Back to School.”

Last night, a family friend asked me about what we teachers ask students to purchase for going back to school.  He had heard a radio story about people being asked to bring in rolls of toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and other non-educational items.  Can I just say that this is ridiculous?

Now, I may have a different perspective because I teach high school and my only requirements are that each student covers his or her book, has a notebook of his or her choice, and brings some sort of writing utensil.  I’m easy to please.  If kids want highlighters, colored pencils, a fancy trapper keeper (do they still make those?) or a TI-86 calculator, good for them.  But those aren’t REQUIRED items in my classroom.

As an environmental educator and an environmentalist, I encourage kids to skip purchasing new items and use the ones they have at home that are perfectly good.  At the end of each year when kids clean out their lockers, I inevitably see them throwing out binders, notebooks, folders, etc.  I spend much of my time standing by the trash, asking them if they’d like to donate it to my classroom instead.  I’d much prefer that they’d save it for next year, and I’m sure their parents would like that, but teenagers don’t always think cost-effectively.  Fast-forward to the next school year and I offer students my “salvaged” binders on the first day, first-come-first-served, and explain that they’re reusing, an important part of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.  Since I was on maternity leave at the end of last year, I have no binders to give away this year.  But I’ll encourage kids to check out what they have at home before buying new.

Some ideas: Do you have any idea how many partially used spiral notebooks there are? You probably have many in your house.  Why not cut out the paper and put it in a binder instead of buying new? Or simply rip out the used pages and you have a brand new notebook! Why not use scrap paper or junk mail instead of buying post-it notes or pads? Do you really need to buy new pens, pencils, crayons, rulers, calculators? Why not shop around at home before heading out to the store? It’ll save you some money and reduce your impact on the planet.

Finally, when it comes to buying toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer (my school doesn’t do this),  I think it’s crazy, but I can understand wanting to use as much of the budget for education as possible.  However, as a taxpayer, I don’t want to have to go out and buy these things that the school should provide.  It would make much more sense for the school to buy these items in bulk, and thereby save money, packaging and a lot of aggravated parents.  If your child’s school is asking for these items, I’d encourage you to contact the teacher, principal, superintendent or Board of Education.  It just makes no sense for children to bring these items to school.  (It reminds me of a story my grandfather told about being required to bring wood for the wood stove to his one-room school house, and that the kids who brought the most wood got to sit closest to the fire.)  Maybe you can explain that your family chooses to use cloth wipes instead of toilet paper? That would be a fun way to introduce yourself to the new teacher!

Do you have any tips for going back to school without being a mega-consumer?

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8 Comments

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8 Responses to Greening Back to School

  1. Well, I’m past going to school, but I think what you suggest would be harder for some of my kids than straight on buying stuff.

    Teens are (organically) so invested in their peer group… and that includes a lot about their style. So being the crunchy-granola kid with the reused stationary… man, that would take an unusual teen, to cope with that. Most of them seem to be embarrassed to have someone discover their mothers personally touch food, instead of having everything catered.

    Is that just my corner of the universe?

    • It definitely depends on the kid. I’ve had students who are very proud to explain how they recycled or repurposed an old notebook, and I’ve had student who would be embarrassed.

      A big trend I’ve noticed is that they decorate their notebooks with collages of both their own pictures and magazine pictures, so that would be a great way to disguise an older binder or notebook. Likewise, painting or drawing could be a fun way to decorate a binder and make it look like new. It might even be a fun project for the week before going back to school. I know I enjoyed art projects over summer vacation more than I enjoyed shopping for school supplies. Just because it’s more sustainable doesn’t mean it has to be ugly or boring! And that’s a good lesson to teach kids!

  2. Ab,

    I just LOVE your common sense approach to school supplies and just wish more teachers and school systems thought like you! I’ve seen some ridiculously long, detailed lists of supplies that parents are asked to buy for their children, right even down to brand-name and color! I also think that is ridiculous!

    While purchasing a few new items is part of the fun of getting (especially younger) students ready for school, we should all use what we have first and recycle what we can. I always re-use binders when possible, although I did pick up a few new ones today (one for school to organize my schedules/rosters in and two more for my courses in a Doctoral Program). So, I guess getting ready for “back to school” goes on at all ages.

    I did make a commitment to keep more electronic files because I want to reduce the amount of paper I use, plus a flash drive is a lot easier to carry around than loads of fat binders!

    Also, I did an inventory of what clothes I already have that I can start the school year in (mostly what I was wearing at the end of last year) and just picked up a couple new items that would extend my wardrobe. I really should NOT be outgrowing my clothes at my age!

    Thanks for the tips!

  3. I am looking for tips myself. My daughter is starting kindergarten this year, and it will be my first experience with the public education system since I graduated myself. I am interested to see what kind of programs are in place (or not) to make the school more environmentally friendly. I hope that they’ve made at least a little headway since I was a student myself.

  4. First and foremost my daughters attend a private school that provides 90% of the supplies. They do ask that each child send in 1 box of tissues and I can live with that. My youngest needed this year: 1 Trapper Keeper with 2 folders – we needed this last year and we are redesigning and reusing. WE will be using fabric decoupage (sp?) and a she also needed a plastic dish tub. I just happen to have extras of those around so we didn’t need to buy anything.
    My oldest (middle school) last year had to choose if she was going to use subject notebooks or binders. She wisely chose binders (“Because I can reuse them mom”) and when her list came out this year it was the same. She removed the old notes, kept what she believed she would reuse, and then restocked them with new paper.
    WE have lots of pens, pencils and art supplies around the house.
    Even our clothes shopping is done at reuse places (thrift and consignment). The only thing we buy new for school is shoes (and that is just because I have yet to find a place that has good used shoes, I used to get them all the time at garage sales, but not anymore).

  5. Tia

    I am with you on the reusing. I graduated from high school 17 years ago and just finally had to throw out three 3-ring binders that I have been using since my junior year. :) Those suckers were held together with masking tape and a prayer but they worked. I also covered up the reusable portions with pictures of my kids, their artwork etc…As I was throwing them away I made sure to explain to my kids (ages 8 & 10) why it was so important to reuse them until they had no more use left. It makes me so proud when they are able to come up with new ways to reuse something “used”.

    As far as their public school, every year I get a supply list (Colorado schools) with dry erase markers, zip-lock baggies, 60 pencils (per kid) and hand sanitizer on it. I refuse to buy most of these items. I explain to the teachers, year after year, that my child will NEVER use 60 pencils in a year, that as long as they have access to indoor plumbing they can simply wash their hands with soap and water, and that if they have projects to bring home they can be put in their backpacks not in individual baggies. It makes me so sad that I have to continue to have these talks explaining the need to be even a little bit conservation minded. I also had to have a meeting with the principal last year and my daughters 2nd grade teacher insisting that she stop giving my daughter disposable plastic water bottles everyday rather than allowing her to keep her metal reusable water bottle in her desk.

    On the plus side, both of my kids are perfectly happy to use last years pencil bags (never plastic boxes even if the list demands its), their good markers, colored pencils and crayons. As my not very polite son said, “how stupid do you have to be to throw out colored pencils that still have color in them?”

  6. My daughter just started middle school and the lists of supplies has come rolling in from all of her teachers. She has a binder with dividers from last year that she is using this year. To make it cool she covered it in Duck tape (I know, not eco friendly, but she got it out of her grandfather’s garage) and she has had quite a few kids ask her where she got her “Awesome” binder from.

    I have to say that most of her teachers have pretty simple… notebook/writing utensil lists, but her socail studies teacher specified the exact BRAND of color pencils every child must have. I’ve sent an email explain my daughter will be using the woodless color penciles that we already own. Haven’t herd back, but since its a public school I’m guessing there isn’t anything she can do about it really.

  7. This is the first year that we have to provide supplies for the school year. In the past the budget covered most supplies for the kids, with requests for a few donations of tissues, wipes etc…… It has been interesting listening to how our entire town has gotten caught up in the back-to-school frenzy of purchasing new supplies. I think you are right. Most of these supplies are already in my home and i could probably supply a few more kids with the stuff that we have laying around. I too was caught up in the commotion and purchased new supplies for my children. I will certainly see what I can do with what we have next time around.

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