It might feel like summer is just starting, but I’ve noticed that stores like Target are already rolling out their back-to-school section. Walking through these aisles with a checklist in hand is already stressful enough; if you’re trying to reduce single-use packaging and taking plastic out of your home, it’s even more of a nightmare. It seems like everything is made out of plastic -- mechanical pencils, binders, notebook covers, pencil cases, binder tabs. Back-to-school also signals a ramping up of packing school lunches, which can be a plastic jungle if you're using separate plastic Ziploc bags for each snack and juice boxes with straws on the daily.
This time of year offers a great opportunity to make some easy switches to reduce the amount of plastic we're using at school.
First up, school supplies!
Most supplies sold at big stores are either made of plastic (pencils, notebooks, markers, etc.), packaged in plastic, or both. While their are some recycling programs for these products, we don't think they're the right solution. In an email with Crayola about their ColorCycle, for instance, we learned that old markers are melted into wax compounds and generate electricity, but the process of burning and melting plastic creates toxic pollution. It’s just not necessary to keeping buying all this new plastic into the classroom when there are so many amazing alternatives! Here are options for reducing some of that waste:
- First, reuse and repair! Before going out to buy new products, double and triple check your drawers for old pens and other supplies laying around. A lot of us tend to lose track of what we’ve already purchased (I’m guilty of this too-- my junk drawer is ever-expanding), but if you do a few passes over your desk drawers or your kids’ supplies from last year, chances are you’ll find items that can be reused, or repaired with a little tape or glue. Also check out your local Buy Nothing Facebook group to see if your neighbors have surplus supplies, or if you're in the Bay Area look at The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse or Scrap SF for second hand art and school supplies.
- If there’s still items missing from your list, try buying them plastic-free. One company we love is Wisdom Supply Co., which is a school supply company selling products that are not only beautiful and functional but plastic-free! All of their products are awesome, but some of the especially unique ones include their dry-erase crayons (yes, they work on whiteboards!), their refillable markers, natural rubber erasers (the shavings can be composted!), and highlighters. Wisdom Supply Co. also creates custom kits for specific schools' required school supplies lists, and if you work with them to get a kit set up for your school, you get a free kit! More info here.
- A third option for some of those trickier items is to get crafty and do a little DIY. For instance, here is a great guide for making different types of glue to use at home so you can avoid that plastic bottle.
A second place to focus on reducing plastic use is school lunches.
When you’re scrambling out the door, it’s important that your plastic-free swaps are easy and accessible. Here’s a quick list of ways to make that happen:
- There are lots of easy, one-to-one switches that you’ll barely even notice you’ve changed, except that you won’t have to continually repurchase these items because they’re all reusable! This includes using beeswax wrap for saran wrap, reusable silicone or cloth baggies instead of ziploc bags, and reusable straws instead of plastic ones.
- Another easy swap to make is keeping lunches in reusable bags or lunch boxes instead of disposable plastic or paper bags. There are so many options to buy these in cute patterns and sustainable materials, or you can just reuse tote bags or shopping bags you already have around the house.
- Instead of plastic tupperware, use glass or stainless steel containers to store food. Besides causing health risks for workers and neighbors during the production process, plastic containers can pose health risks for consumers, too, so it’s especially important to be careful when using them to hold food or toiletries (basically, anything you’ll be ingesting or putting on your body). This is true for water bottles, too-- check out glass and stainless steel options instead!
- Instead of using a new set of plastic silverware every day only to be thrown away, pack reusable bamboo or metal cutlery that can be washed and reused until they’re finally composted or recycled.
Here's a few more general tips to keep your back-to-school season even more eco-friendly:
- Do you love back-to-school clothes shopping, or need to replace your old sneakers or backpack from last year? Try buying second hand! Second-hand might sound daunting at first, but I promise there are options for everyone-- if you like hunting for a bargain, look up Goodwill, Salvation Army, or Value Village stores nearby. If the idea of thrifting sounds like way too much work, there are lots of more boutique-y second-hand stores that have more “normal” and curated options that will make it easier to find something (my favorites in the Bay Area are Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads). Thrifting is a great way to save money on shoes, bags, and clothes, and it’s one of the most impactful ways you can help the earth! You can also organize a clothing swap with your friends or neighbors to get some new pieces without needing to buy anything.
- In general, opt for metal or wood options over plastic for items like rulers, scissors, or pencil sharpeners. Not only do they last longer (and look sleeker), at the end of their life they can be recycled or composted. If you’re buying things in cardboard or paper, look for post-consumer paper that has already been recycled to decrease your footprint and help increase demand for recycled materials!
- Try to continue these good habits throughout the school year too! Don't worry if you're not perfect-- even a couple changes will have an impact. Plus, once you've invested in some high-quality reusable options, you'll be saving time and money every time you avoid repurchasing disposables without even thinking about it.