2 Billion Pencils* and a School Supply Quandary

Pencils laying on graph paper

Steve Lewis Stock / Getty Images

Last year at around the start of school, I just said no to new school supplies. We went through our house and found 90% of the supplies we needed (the pencils we gathered were a combination of unused and stubs we resharpened) and went out for a treat on the money we "saved."

This year, living back in the U.S. the list of "required" supplies was longer and more specific ("2 granola bars, no nuts???"), leading me to ask myself: "Is my kid really going to use these 50 pencils I'm providing?" and more importantly, "Why are schools' approach to supplies so seemingly ungreen?"Most schools seem to approach the idea of greening through recycling or building improvements. That's great, but what about also reusing, recycling and repurposing when it comes to school supplies?

Budget Concerns

I think one reason schools don't in general have a waste not, want not philosophy is that they are generally in pretty dire financial straits, at least here in Portland, where there's a constant budget tussle. In addition, and I think this may be more important for its motivational effects, school receive a kick-back from office and school supply stores. Do they need the kick-back for necessary purchases? I'm sure they probably do. But does it encourage efficient use of resources or teach kids about not squandering? Not really.

When thinking about the 4 dozen pencils (for one child) I was supposed to buy, I just couldn't understand why the school didn't advocate for mechanical pencils. After all, this might not work in elementary, but surely seventh graders are capable of putting replacement lead in their own mechanical pencil? However, is seems the eco-debate on wood versus mechanical still seems to favor the wood pencil as more eco-friendly. Now that there are mechanical pencils with bio-degradable plastic shells, perhaps the balance has shifted a bit.

In the end, I bought 2 dozen virginal pencils to hand over to the homeroom teacher and instead of the other 2 dozen, lead refills for the four mechanical pencils we were able to scrounge up in the house.

Wasted School Supplies

On some of the other items on the list, there was also a sense of waste. The school asked for a ream of paper per student be turned over on Day 1 to the homeroom teacher. The school will pool the paper and use it for handouts and copies. Again, it's easy to understand the idea of giving the school paper - and hard to argue the exact definition of need. Yet about half of the paper handouts my son gets end up in the recycling within a few weeks, while the others reside in his overstuffed binder until they are purged to recycling at year's end. Isn't there a better way to transmit information? We've predicted the paperless office for years and it hasn't happened, but I think some progress has been in the office environment and most of us do more on e-mail, read more online than on paper, and endeavor to follow Michael's golden rule about printing less, less, less. Somehow the schools I am associated with don't seem on that track.

The most perplexing items on the list, the granola bars and a plastic 16-ounce bottle of water, are part of our school's earthquake preparedness. I couldn't think of a way not to send in bottled water, though I'm against it in priniciple and practice. Ditto the granola bars.

All in all the supply shopping in the bright lights and big box atmosphere of Office Depot left me feeling discouraged. What was your experience with school supply shopping?

*2 billion is the estimated number of pencils used in the U.S. each year. That represents about 82,000 trees cut for pencils, as each tree makes approximately 170,000 pencils. John Steinbeck is said to have used more than 300 pencils to write his novel East of Eden.