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Back to School with Zero Waste: Simple Tips for an Eco-Friendly Year

From lunch boxes filled with wrappers to backpacks overflowing with paper, back to school isn’t just hard for our kids, it can also have a negative impact on our planet. Luckily, embracing zero waste can make this school year a little different. We can’t guarantee these tips will get your kids excited about going back to school, but they will help them have an eco-friendly school year that is easier on the environment—and on your wallet!

Check What You Have on Hand

Reuse what you already own to pare down your shopping list. This may include last year’s backpack or lunchbox, school supplies, and Tupperware for packing lunches. While there are always sustainable alternatives for items, using what you have on hand is the most environmentally-friendly approach.

Shop Smart for Supplies

Rethinking the supplies you buy can make a big difference. Here are some school supply shopping tips to consider:

Wait for the List: If teachers usually send a supply list, hold off on shopping until you get it. Waiting for the list can help you avoid overbuying and picking up items that won’t get used. This is especially important this year since teachers’ lists may end up being different than usual since a lot of items will no longer be shared among students.

Think Sustainable: Look to alternatives for supplies that use more sustainable materials and stay away from plastic wherever possible. For example, there are ballpoint pens made from 100% biodegradable plant matter, coloring pencils made from recycled newspaper, and highlighter pencils that are plastic-free. Then there are also long-term use items like stapleless staplers that can last a whole school career and never need staples.

Buy Quality: Buying quality supplies may cost you more upfront, but it will save you money in the long run since you won’t have to rebuy them down the road. This is especially important for long-term use items like staplers, rulers, pencil cases, and binders.

Go Recycled: Find items like notebooks and binders made from recycled materials. This can help eliminate the strain on natural resources and curb landfill waste.

Rethink New Clothing

If your child sprouted a few inches over the summer and all their pants now look too short, take a trip to a local thrift shop. There you will find kids’ clothes at a discounted rate that look as good as new. Plus, buying used helps keep textiles out of the landfill and also saves water—one cotton T-shirt takes 400 gallons of water to grow the cotton needed to craft it, while jeans require 18,000 gallons. And don’t forget to donate any clothes that your kids have outgrown.

Alternatively, you could also try swapping clothes with other parents. This gives your kids’ clothes a second chance at life and you can get “new” clothes for free.

Create a Unique Backpack

If your kiddo needs a new backpack, you can also grab one secondhand. But if you are buying new, aim for one that is high quality and will last a few years.

If your child wants a schoolbag that has their favorite character, consider if they will outgrow it by next year. If the answer is yes, skip the branded backpack and grab a quality plain one to embellish with iron-on or sew-on patches of their favorite characters. This means that next year you aren’t getting rid of a whole backpack, but possibly just switching out a few patches. As an added bonus with this method, their bag will be 100% unique! So they won’t mix it up with the other hundred superhero or princess backpacks.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle)

Pack a refillable water bottle to eliminate plastic. This is especially imperative this year since water fountains in some schools—depending on where you live—will not be operating. Aim for a metal version over plastic if you have to buy a bottle. Not only will the metal last longer, but metal is infinitely recyclable—where plastic can only get downcycled and repurposed a few times before it ends up in the landfill.

Create a Zero Waste Lunch Box

Make everyone’s favorite subject much less wasteful by using these lunch swaps:

Lunch Bag: Skip the paper bags and use a lunch pail or canvas lunch bag.

Napkins: Go with cloth ones that can get brought back home to get washed.

Utensils: Pack some regular utensils and reusable straws. You can also purchase a travel set for this purpose. Don’t forget to also pack these on days where cafeteria food is purchased to avoid single-use items like plastic utensils.

Containers: Forgo plastic sandwich bags and turn to reusable containers. Other items you may want to consider are reusable sandwich bags and snack bags. They’re made of fabric with a waterproof lining and can get washed and reused hundreds of times. Or, you may want to try beeswax wraps.

Embrace Zero Waste Lunch Ideas

Now that you have a lunchbox equipped to be zero waste, you need to think about what you are going to pack.

Bulk Food: Buy dried fruit, granola, nuts, and other dry goods for quick snacks.

Produce: Look to fruits like bananas, apples, and oranges that need no additional wrapping. For other fruit that needs to be cut, simply slice it up and place it in a container. The same goes for vegetables. Looking for produce that is package-free? Shop your local Farmer’s Market.

Homemade Snacks: When you make snacks like granola bars, yogurt, and fruit leather from scratch, you know exactly what is going in them and they don’t come with excess packaging.

Main Course: Sandwiches are a go-to for getting in all the food groups. Additionally, you may want to try packing soup in a thermos. If you have a fussy eater, try making a snack tray with whole food items like cheese, turkey, nuts, popcorn, hummus, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

And finally, be mindful of food waste and don’t overpack. If you’re worried your child will be hungry, add more dry goods—they won’t spoil and can get snacked on later.

By embracing zero waste this school year, you are not only helping the planet and saving money, but you are setting an example for your children. Because while some things are taught in a classroom, many lessons are learned at home.

Author Bio

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED-accredited, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.