School will be back in session soon for most kids (if it isn’t already!), and most will need to stock up on a few things before returning to school. Time to get fired up over 12¢ erasers and 25¢ notebooks, right?
Of course, since this is a DIY site, we always encourage you to make things yourself if possible. Or at least use things until they can no longer be resurrected for another school year. But many of the supplies needed for school are consumables – things that get used up or worn out – and need to be purchased year after year.
Why eco-friendly and natural products?
The problem with many of the school supplies on the market is that they’re not very environmentally friendly, and some may even be toxic to the user. The production of many of these items requires large amounts of natural resources and energy to be used, and releases countless nasty chemicals into the air. The wasteful packaging is another issue, not to mention everything that gets thrown away at the end of each school year. Plastic binders, chewed up pencils, dried out markers, and broken crayons. Some can’t be reused, and most of them can’t even be recycled.
Worse yet, toxic chemicals have been found in children’s school supplies, such as phthalates, lead, and BPA. These toxins have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and harmful effects on the developing brain. (source, source) When we expect children to perform their very best in school, we should make sure they have supplies that can support their learning instead of hindering it.
So if you’re spending money on school items, let’s take a look at some options that will have a lesser impact on the earth and are safer for your kids.
Greener options for back-to-school
Paper is one of the top items on back-to-school shopping lists. But buying your new paper doesn’t have to mean the end of a tree’s life. If you want something that’s a little better for the environment look for paper made from 100% recycled materials. You will also want to make sure the paper you buy was processed without bleach or other harmful chemicals like this brand.
Have you ever seen someone clean out an office and throw away an entire trash can full of plastic binders? I saw this happen many times when I worked in schools. And trying to give away plastic binders is like trying to get rid of free kittens.
All those vinyl binders containing PVC are difficult to recycle (read more here) and most end up in landfills somewhere, degrading at snail speed. So how about diligently organizing your notes and handouts in binders made from recycled materials that can actually be recycled at the end of the school year. (Or better yet, reused until they fall apart.) These durable binders are constructed with removable rings so you can recycle when the time comes.
For an eco-conscious and toxic-free choice, avoid binders made from vinyl (containing PVC), and opt instead for cardboard or fabric-covered binders.
When choosing pencils, you’ll want to look for plain pencils made from sustainable wood or other recycled materials. This brand is from sustainable wood and pencils can be recycled at the end of their lives. Pencils can also be made from recycled newspapers, requiring no wood at all. How cool do these recycled paper graphite pencils look? Pair them with a good eraser and you’re ready to work.
You may be surprised to know that the pink eraser on the end of your pencil is most likely not real rubber. Most erasers these days are made from either synthetic rubber or vinyl. (source) Synthetic rubber is derived from petroleum, and the process of refining petroleum is known to have many negative impacts on the environment.
Instead, you may want to consider a recycled eraser option. I found these eraser sticks made from recycled rubber. They can even be sharpened for more precise erasing, and will last much longer than the puny little eraser typically found on the end of a pencil. Recycled rubber erasers will at least help keep a little rubber out of landfills.
When you get to the glue on your back-to-school shopping list, just be sure to avoid rubber cement, epoxies, or super glues, which contain harmful solvents. This shouldn’t be a problem, since most kids normally use glue sticks, water-based glue, or pourable “school glue,” which are all safe choices. The issue with most of these is the plastic waste involved. Those little plastic glue sticks don’t last long and eventually get tossed. One company has finally seen the light and started producing natural glue sticks and pourable school glue (made from renewable plants) made from partially recycled containers, sporting partially recycled labels. The recycled content isn’t a lot, but at least they’re showing some effort. And if you’re really into saving the planet, this glue is made from recycled styrofoam…pretty crazy, huh?
When choosing markers, stay away from those marked “permanent” or “waterproof,” which contain toxic solvents. Scented markers also contain toxic fragrance chemicals you shouldn’t be sending to school with your child. Choose water-based markers (like these) instead.
Did you know that most crayons are made of paraffin wax, which is created from a sludge that remains after petroleum is refined? (source) Not something you want your kindergartener chewing on. You can make your own crayons with all-natural ingredients, or purchase ones made from natural beeswax. (Find beeswax crayons here.) A fun project my mother always used to do with us was melting down our broken crayon pieces in mini muffin tins to make multi-colored crayon discs that were so fun to use. (See a simple tutorial here.)
Children’s plastic lunch boxes are at risk for containing PVC liners, BPA in the plastic, or painted-on graphics containing lead. To avoid having your healthful lunch come in contact with one of these things, look for cloth lunch bags or unpainted metal lunch containers. BPA-free plastic lunch boxes are second-best.
Snack bags/Food wrap
When you pack snacks and lunches for school, don’t forget to consider how you can cut down on waste and use more sustainable options. You can easily make your own reusable snack bags or invest in a few that will last a long time (like these). Food wrap doesn’t have to be thrown out either – you can make your own gorgeous reusable food wrap in just a few minutes. (Learn how here.)
Over the last several years, hand sanitizer became a very popular item added to school supply lists. Giant jugs of it can be found all over schools. Children are also toting it in their backpacks. If this is an item in your child’s bag, be sure to send him/her with a non-toxic version like our DIY Natural Hand Sanitizer, or a store-bought brand without all the chemicals (like this).
Instead of sending single-use plastic water bottles to school, invest in a water bottle that can be washed and reused. Choose a stainless steel water bottle like this, or a glass bottle with a protective sleeve (find one here). Even a BPA-free plastic water bottle is better than a one-use bottle.
Let’s face it – kids can be hard on things. Although a good backpack should last several years, most likely you’ll have to replace kids’ backpacks more often. The best choice is a backpack made from natural fibers, but polyester or nylon are also ok choices. Avoid backpacks with shiny plastic designs, which might contain lead or PVC.
So before the school doors open, give some thought to the supplies you’ll be sending with your children or using yourself. Reuse, make it yourself, or choose a more eco-conscious and natural option!