Pop quiz: How can parents send their kids back to school without getting a failing grade from the environment? Whether it’s all the plastic-packaged supplies that students need, the latest clothes they want, or the reams of paper that end up printed, distributed, and discarded, the start of the school year hardly amounts to a master class in eco-friendly or sustainable practices.
Fortunately, we’ve done our homework and found a few tips to make this school season a little kinder to the planet. So, whether classes have already started where you live, or the kids still have a few weeks left of freedom before the bell rings, here are some ways to help make this school year an eco-friendly one — while even saving you money.
1. Close to school? Walk or bike
We know — it’s so easy to get in the car and run around the corner. But, if you live near your child’s school, a great way to start the morning with quality time and exercise is to walk or bike to school. One way to make the walk fun is to enlist others to join through a walking school bus. This simple concept involves a few adults supervising a group of children on their walk to school. Another variation to the walking school bus is a bicycle train.
During a normal school year, the school bus and carpooling with others are environmentally friendly transportation modes to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and reduce air pollution. But, if you need to drive your child to school, turn the engine off while waiting in the pick-up or drop-offline. Car idling, even for a short period of time, is a major contributor to air pollution and can become costly with all that wasted fuel.
2. Get thrifty when shopping for clothes
Anyone with kids know that they, well, grow. Kids outgrow clothing very quickly, especially when they are still young, so buying new clothes from retail stores not only wastes a lot of money for very little value, but “fast fashion” also contributes greatly to both sweatshop labor and environmental degradation from the GMO crops, oil-based synthetic fabrics, and toxic dyes used to make them. In fact, the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world — second only to oil!
So, get creative with the kiddos and check out your local thrift stores for some treasure hunting. In fact, Gen Z is making it a point to bring thrifting back. Not only will it save you quite a few dollars while helping the planet, but it will also allow your kids to curate a cool and one-of-a-kind wardrobe for this school year.
3. Wash their clothes with eco-friendly detergent
The only thing kids do better than outgrow clothes is get them dirty. But before you turn to traditional liquid laundry detergents, consider SaltyLama’s eco-friendly strips. They're the perfect way to keep your child's clothes clean and fresh.
Made with natural ingredients, they're gentle on fabric and effective at removing dirt and bacteria. In addition, they are hypoallergenic and free of harsh chemicals, making them safe for use on sensitive skin. And because they are biodegradable, you can feel good about using them without harming the environment. Sample some now — you don't have to wait in a line at the store to buy them — and see the difference!
4. Take stock of what you already have
Before you go out and just start buying things, think of how much you may have left over from previous school years — or even if there is excess in your home office.
Take a careful inventory of the school supplies you already have that can be used again. Do you have extra packs of pencils, or barely used notebooks? Do you really need a new ruler? Is last year’s backpack still fully functional? Is that lunchbox still in great shape?
Reduce your consumerism and avoid last-minute impulse purchases by making a list of what you really need before you go to the store and stick to it!
5. Choose eco-friendly supplies
One thing we never really talk about is how terrible for the environment school supplies can be. PVC — also known as vinyl — contains chemical additives, including phthalates that are linked to asthma, learning disabilities, diabetes, and other chronic health problems. In fact, the U.S. Congress banned phthalates in children’s toys, yet they are widespread in such school supplies as lunch boxes, backpacks, and three-ring binders.
It’s hard to find binders that are not made of vinyl but look for brands that are labeled PVC-free. Some crayons that are imported from China have been found to be contaminated with asbestos. Choose crayons that have been manufactured locally. More and more retailers are carrying eco-friendly versions of every day school supplies, so choose recycled pencils and markers, refillable or recycled pens, and 100 percent recycled, chlorine-free notebooks and printer paper, too.
6. Reuse textbooks
Anyone who has ever stepped foot on a U.S. university campus can attest that textbooks may just cost you an arm and a leg. But used textbooks are often available for half off or more in campus bookstores, and websites such as eCampus and Amazon Textbook Rentals also carry a broad selection of used titles.
Renting or buying used textbooks is an increasingly popular option that helps reduce the number of books being created, saving millions of trees. In fact, according to the Environmental Paper Network, if the U.S. reduced its paper consumption by 10 percent annually, we could save enough energy to power 228,000 homes, conserve 11 billion gallons of water, and prevent carbon emissions equivalent to removing 279,000 cars from the road! Choosing used textbooks can help.
7. Take your lunch
The average elementary school disposes of 20,000 pounds of lunch waste every year. That’s 10 tons of trash per school! By packing a whole food lunch for your child in a reusable lunch box with a reusable bottle of water or milk, you will help reduce the amount of paper bags, food packaging and wasted food your child produces — and they will be so much healthier for it too.
Making a lunch made with whole food (and not packaged, processed food) doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming. Get your kids involved in choosing lunch ingredients, so they’ll be less likely to pitch stuff they don’t want to eat.
8. Carry a reusable lunchbox and water bottle
If kids these days are anything like us, they may look at school lunches sideways, because — let’s be honest — they weren’t the best. Some parents and kids prefer homemade meals sent to school. And this means finding something to tote them in. Most plastic lunch boxes and water bottles contain toxic BPA, PVC or phthalates that cause health problems. Some plastic lunch boxes may even contain lead! Plastic is also made from petroleum, so it is an inherently unsustainable and polluting material, even if it happens to be “BPA-free.”
Instead of plastic, we highly recommend stainless steel lunch boxes and water bottles. Stainless steel lunch boxes will last for many years, are easy to wash, and won’t leak toxic plastic chemicals into your child’s food.
9. Make eco-friendly food choices
When considering eco-friendly lunches, it’s also worthwhile to consider what you send to school with your kids. In general, animal-based products that needlessly waste natural resources in their production carry a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods. By introducing more plant-based foods into your child’s school lunch you’ll be helping the planet and providing a nutritional meal for your child! And since you control the ingredients, most likely those whole foods will be a healthier alternative to fast-or take-out foods.
Parents — congratulations on your newfound freedom (again). And kids — be good, stay strong, and finish well. Remember that there are always opportunities to protect the planet. From taking a sustainable lunch to picking up trash on campus, you can make a difference in all kinds of ways. Happy studying!