It’s been many years since the chill of fall in the air last meant a return to school to me, but the thrill of new school supplies nonetheless still holds. Growing up, back-to-school shopping was a cherished time to pick out just the right binders and folders, to carefully affix labels to everything, to organize and reorganize pens and markers and backpacks and lockers.
But, alas, the zero waste Grinch comes for everything beloved. I’m joking, of course – for back-to-school, you’ll always need something, but I’ll submit you may not need everything. A strategy for buying school supplies more sustainably looks the same as the strategy for buying anything more sustainably: first, use (and reuse) what you have, then search for a secondhand option, and lastly choose new items carefully, only when the first two categories have been exhausted.
This means a trip to the store may be to pick out folders and pencils to accompany reused binders and pens. Or, maybe, choosing to replace two binders, not five. Regardless of what works for you, some thoughts on zero waste alternatives to traditional school supplies might be helpful as September looms.
Zero waste alternatives:
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-Binders: Once the plastic binders already in your home are splitting at the seams (an inevitability, per my recollection), cardboard binders are a replacement that can be taken apart and recycled once past their prime.
-Notebooks and folders: Since these are both primarily paper, low-waste versions are easy to find. Purchase some secondhand, reuse last year's, or dig out those freebie notebooks from ages ago. If you're in the market for something new, Decomposition Books are my favorite.
-Pencils: Are abundant in the world already, stuffed in kitchen drawers. Dig them out and put them to good use. If possible, choose a high-quality analog sharpener, which won’t become trash at the first sign of a jam. (This one, pictured above, was a gift from Wisdom Supply Co. that I hope to use for the next decade-plus).
-Pens: As for pencils, the most sustainable pens are the ones already clogging your drawers and pencil cups. Once you've run out of those, though, there are low-waste alternatives out there. For older students responsible enough to take on a project, consider a fountain pen; here's a beginners' guide to using them. For everyone else, a refillable rollerball (like this one) minimizes waste while still being easy to use.
-Highlighters: I was thrilled to learn about highlighter pencils, which achieve the same effect as their plastic cousins, but don’t run dry and don’t need to end up in the trash.
-Tape: Paper washi tape replaces plastic tape, and is lovelier and more cheerful to boot. Look for washi tape packaged without a plastic wrapper; this is easier to find on Etsy (for example, this charming set) than in stores.
-Packing lunches: Reusable silicone Stasher bags can replace Ziplocs, and metal tins are lightweight and unbreakable alternatives to heaver glass containers. Life Without Plastic sells versions of these tins with compartments (like this one, or this one), which are great for kids.
-Creative reuse stores: These stores are wonderful community resources for secondhand art, craft, and school supplies. If you have one near you, it’s likely to be a rich source for secondhand folders, pens, markers, and anything else you might need. If there isn’t one in your local area, general secondhand stores often curate seasonal displays; this time of year, that may mean binders and backpacks and other school supplies are featured front and center.
-Wisdom Supply Co.: The women behind Wisdom Supply Co. rigorously vet the school supplies in their shop to be the most zero-waste-friendly out there. Items are beautiful, durable, and designed to last through many years and many kids. They sent me their pencil tin set, pictured above, and I've been smitten ever since.
-eBay: For graphing calculators, textbooks, and other specific supplies, chances are someone just a few years ahead of your kids has already used it and decided to part with it. In addition to supporting secondhand, you'll save money by going this route, too.
-Terracycle: For non-recyclable supplies you just can't avoid, Terracycle offers recycling boxes for various items; purchase one, fill it up, and ship it back, then they'll take care of the rest. You could purchase a small one for your household and store it in the mudroom or a closet, or donate one to your school for general use. Of particular interest here, their pens, pencils and markers box and their office supplies box.
If you’re not a school-age family but still want to get into the spirit, consider taking a few moments to support local schools. Many schools and community centers host school-supply drives this time of year, to which your years-old stock of extra supplies might be a welcome donation. Or, you can support a project in your area at DonorsChoose, where teachers solicit needed supplies that their districts are unable to provide.
Other zero waste tips for the school-aged?
More ideas for zero waste schools or offices, here.