As a teacher shopping for school supplies was one of the highlights of the school year. I loved wandering the aisles of coloured crayons, pencils, notebooks, and organisers galore!
But now when I wander the shops, I see endless plastic wrap and cheap plastic and glittery items that now make me cringe.
I bought new things every year, despite having old things that would have worked just fine.
I used the same books every year and no one noticed or complained. And by the end of the first month, the new crayons looked like the old ones.
So why did I, feel the need to buy new every year? How can we stop the unsustainable consumerism with our school supplies?
Let’s look at ways we can make the Back to School season more sustainable.
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Start With What You Have
Did you do any spring cleaning and find you had loads of pens, pencils, or crayons, etc. lying around?
Go through and check for the ones that work and group them into piles of school supplies for your kids. For the pens, markers, and highlighters, etc. that don’t work anymore, click here to learn where you can recycle them.
Do you have a pile of USB sticks not being used? Clear them off and you have fresh sticks ready for the new school year.
Old t-shirts and any other unused fabric lying around are perfect for sewing together a cute pencil case or a crayon pouch for crayons that no longer have a box.
Reuse items that are in good condition. Things like book bags, gym bags or backpacks, lunch boxes and water bottles, maths tools and calculators can all be used again year after year or passed on to siblings when they are taken care of.
Keep your supplies from ending up lost by using these dishwasher-proof sticker labels.
Shop Second Hand
Book bags, gym bags, backpacks are items that are easy to find second hand. Scouring some online apps even let you filter out items by brand, price and condition. Your child can still have something “new” and different for the year without spending a fortune.
Check out my favourite second-hand apps for more ideas.
Textbooks, dictionaries and thesauruses are also widely available at second-hand bookstores to use at home and will help save some trees in the process.
Even expensive items like scientific calculators for high school students can be found second-hand. Just be sure to check with the maths teacher to make sure it has all the required features before you buy.
Have a Uniform Swap
Get together with other parents and swap uniforms. Get the sizes you need and send nothing to landfill.
Items that are too worn or stained can be cut up and easily made into headbands and hair scrunchies that match the uniforms.
If there are still uniforms left over, donate them to the PTA to either give away through the school or turn them into decorations for school events.
If you have the means and need to buy new consider buying GOTS certified, organic cotton uniforms from EcoOutfitters. Their uniforms have a lower carbon footprint and are better for children’s sensitive skin since it won’t be full of as many chemicals and pesticides.
Being cotton, the material will also allow your child’s skin to breathe and help prevent skin rashes or exacerbating skin conditions like eczema.
The even use coconut shells for buttons!
Even better? Since they are GOTS certified you can rest assured that their supply chain is also paid fairly. (No fast fashion, here!)
Does your child need to wear a mask? Grab a child-sized, reusable mask in a pattern that they love. Make sure to grab one with a filter pocket and filters to give your child maximum protection.
Feeding kids at school has the potential to create a lot of waste. We tend to pack things that are easy and perhaps, individually packaged which more often than not is plastic.
Reduce that waste by using a reusable lunch box and even beyond that and use reusable containers for lunch items.
Instead of a zip top bag of fruit, use a small container. Bento boxes are fantastic for keeping food separate while avoiding having multiple containers in your child’s lunch box. Snacks can be stored in small plastic or bamboo food containers. Ideally, use what you have first. If you don’t have anything, then alternatives like bamboo, wax wraps and silicone bags are great options.
(When used over and over, and not as single-use, plastic containers will last forever and are lightweight, which is ideal for little ones to carry around).
Reusable water bottles are also important. Aside from reducing waste, your child will also be drinking less plastic than if she were to have her own bottle with tap water.
Use these dishwasher-proof sticker labels, so lost items can be returned to their owner.
A cloth napkin makes clean up easy for your child, too.
Handkerchiefs are a great alternative to tissue packets as well and can be embroidered with initials, so they don’t get as lost!
Shop Ethically and Eco Friendly When You Do Need Something New
Some things just don’t last long enough to be used year after year, like pencils. But as with anything if you have the means to make more eco-friendly choices then here’s what to look for.
Tree-based products should have an FSC Logo of some kind on it. The FSC is a global, non-profit organisation that leads sustainable forest management. They make sure that companies are not only sustainably managing forests based on applicable laws and treaties, they also ensure that companies maintain or improve the social and economic positions of their workers. They also “identify and uphold Indigenous Peoples’ legal and customary rights of ownership, use and management of land, territories and resources affected by management activities.”
Tree-based products could have a PEFC certification which is similar to FSC but just a different organisation. PEFC uses the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that the forests are sustainably harvested and their workers are fairly compensated.
While finding products made from wood as an alternative is possible, there is a chance maybe plastic is the better option for reasons ranging from price to weight. When possible look for products that are made from recycled materials.
Reusable and Refillable
Many items like pens and markers can be purchased with the options to refill them instead of recycling them and getting new ones every time they run out of ink. There could be a little more up front cost, but the refills are usually cheaper and will use less plastic.
Lifetime Guarantees and Closed Loop Systems
Items that have lifetime guarantees or multi-year warranties are likely to be of high quality or else they wouldn’t guarantee them. In the same line, some companies are starting to offer repair services or offer detailed advice on caring for and repairing their products yourself. The message in either case is to buy something that will last and repair it before replacing.
Eco-Friendly School Supply List
Sprout Pencils – Sprout Pencils are so cool. You get a lead-free sustainably sourced pencil that contains seeds! Every time a tree is harvested to make pencils, another is planted in it’s place. When you wear the pencil down to nub status you flip it over and plant it. The pencils are labelled with the seeds to they act as a marker in your garden as well! There are 9 different seeds available that are either flowers, herbs, or vegetables. A little more expensive than other options but you also get plants in the end and not waste. If not for regular school supplies, these would make a lovely gift along with an eco-friendly journal or sketchbook.
Pandoo Pencils– Pandoo pencils are pretty neat in that they aren’t even made out of wood! Well they are, but in the form of recycled newspapers. The company’s goal is to reduce deforestation worldwide so these are a great choice for the planet. The pencils are in recycled cardboard packaging and they also offer carbon neutral shipping on all their products. The price point is totally reasonable and a great sustainable choice to start the school year.
Pilot Progrex Mechanical Pencil– Why even recommend a plastic pencil?! Because I know that as our kids get older carrying around multiple pencils and a sharpener can be seen as a pain, so if you are going to go with a plastic mechanical pencil, may it as well be a better one. If you take care of it it will last forever and all you will ever need are the lead refills.
Panadoo– Yes! The same makers from above that make pencils out of newspaper also make coloured pencils from newspaper!
Lyra – These coloured pencils are great for older kids. They are PEFC certified cedar wood in colours inspired by nature. They even come in a metal tin that can be reused for years to come!
Faber-Castell– These fabulous highlighter crayons come in lovely colours and use water-based paint colours. You pay a little more than some competitors but if you are highlighting on thin paper like bible verses, you want something soft that won’t bleed through. These are it! Be sure to grab a larger sharpener as these won’t fit in a standard one.
Faber-Castell– Faber-Castell also make wooden pencil highlighters. The wood is FSC certified and are also good for highlighting on thin bible paper.
Beechwood Clutch Highlighter Marker– If you prefer an ink-based highlighter these beechwood ones are not only sustainably sourced but they offer a pack of 6 refills by request so you don’t have to ever buy another highlighter, making this a great sustainable option.
Lyra – The India rubber (aka natural rubber made from plant latex) erasers are in two colours one side for pencil and the other for pen (though I am sceptical at how well it works). They are a good choice when looking for something not made from synthetic materials.
Glue and Adhesives
Bostik Blu Tack– When crafting or hanging items, sticky tack is the way to go. It is reusable and because it’s a temporary fix, the papers or craft items have a better chance of being recyclable once they have served their purpose.
Eco Glue– This glue is a starch-based adhesive with no nasty chemicals. It’s refillable, washable and biodegradable, too.
Coccoina Jumbo Glue Stick – This glue stick is potato starch-based and smells like Marzipan so it may be wise not to let little ones use it! It contains no nasty chemicals or palm oil and is made in an environmentally conscious factory in Italy.
Left or Right handed scissors– These scissors are stainless steel with a blunt tip making them safer for younger kids. If you have a sharpener, these scissors can easily last forever, but if they don’t since they are 100% stainless steel, they are 100% recyclable making them a more sustainable choice than mixed material scissors.
Already have scissors? Grab a scissor sharpener and have them cutting like new again. Save yourself from having to ever purchase another pair.
Paper Tape– This plastic free tape works just like sticky tape, but is made from kraft paper and a natural rubber-based adhesive. The tape can be recycled or composted. This is great tape for wrapping those brown-papered packages, tied up with string, too! (Go on, sing it.)
Washi Tape– Washi tape is super fun, colourful tape made from natural fibres like bamboo or hemp. The tape is durable and fun for decorating art projects and upcycles.
Recycled Paper Notebooks
Recycled Rhino Pad A4– Not only is this pad made from 100% recycled materials, you are helping to save Rhinos when you make a purchase. The paper is good quality and ink doesn’t bleed through to the other side.
5 Pack Recycled A4 notebooks– the paper is 100% recycled paper and (most likely bleached) bright white. The 5 pack is convenient. The pages are perforated and as long as you remove the metal spine and recycle it separately, recycling the is easy, too.
Aluminium Alloy Ruler Set– This aluminium set of maths tools is a more eco-friendly and more durable set than plastic equivalents. The measuring tools can easily last forever, but being aluminium can be recycled indefinitely in case they don’t.
Professional compass– I would invest separately in a nice compass. This one is completely made of metal and comes with spare screws and lead refills. If for some reason it doesn’t last, it can be easily recycled.
Solar Powered Calculators
Casio FX-85 GTX– From what I’ve seen the 83gtx is often recommended and rightly so as it’s extremely affordable, but if you have the means or can source this one second hand, the 85 is just like the 83, but solar powered.
I mean a staple-less stapler.
Staple-free stapler– This staple is lightweight and small enough to keep in your bag. It can staple up to 5 sheets of paper. What is so nice is the fact that there are no staples to buy or refill. And when it comes time to recycle or shred the papers, no staples to remove first! Easy!
Backpacks, Book Bags, and Gym Bags, Oh My!
If you can not find a second-hand bag that meets your needs, then consider purchasing a bag that will last a lifetime. The bags below go beyond just lugging books around and make great day trip and weekend packs, or carry-ons for holidays. (I did see a brand new Fjall Raven with tags for £50 on Depop, so still check preloved, first!)
Fjall Raven are pricey for good reason. Quality. The bags are meant to last a lifetime and depending on which model you buy; you are also supporting the Arctic Fox population.
Kipling backpacks have been around for ages and their backpacks all come with a two year warranty where they will repair or replace the bag if there are any defects. They come in fun patterns and colours and they also have wheelie backpack options.
Patagonia Black Hole Duffel Bags not only come from a sustainable company but the bags themselves are made from 100% recycled materials. The small 40L is good not only for hauling gym kit to and from school, it is perfect as a carry on for most airlines and great for a weekend bag, too!
Tentree is originally a vegan clothing company but have expanded into bags! Their bags are made from 100% REPREVE which is a recycled nylon fabric made of water bottles! The bags are especially nice as they tend to lay flatter than other bags which is helpful on buses and trains. For every product you purchase, they plant 10 trees, too.
If you don’t have the time or materials to upcycle your own pencil cases, then sourcing a handmade one is the next best thing. You can easily get your pencil case personalised and you’ll be supporting a small business. Etsy also uses carbon neutral shipping.
Reusable Sandwich Bags and Containers
An insulated flask is great for sending your kids to school with a hot meal during the winter. Warm it at home, pack it up and your child will have something still warm by dinner time.
Reusable Sandwich and Snack Bags– If your kid is like me and enjoys sandwiches, reusable sandwich bags are the way to go. They are lightweight and washable which is important especially for younger kids.
If you are going to use reusables everywhere else, you may as well include a cloth napkin. This does not have to be fancy. Cut squares from old t-shirts and you can use that as a napkin, but in case you were overzealous with spring cleaning and already donated your old t-shirts than you can grab a ready-made one from Etsy.
Reduce waste especially during cold season and hayfever season by switching to a cloth handkerchief. As long as they are folded and put into a pocket or a pouch they are just as sanitary as a disposable. (Remembering to wash your hands after in either case!) They are much gentler on your nose, too.
Ready to Shop?
Now that you are armed with all the ways you can make more sustainable choices with your school supplies, grab your list and get going!
The first day will be here before you know it!
Do you have any other tips for finding sustainable school supplies? Did I forget anything? Let me know in the comments below.