How to Go Green: Back to School

how to go green back to school photo

Photo credit: kevindooley/Creative Commons

[by Collin Dunn and Rebecca Silver]

Now that summer is waning, and the days are shortening, many kids (and their parents) are getting ready to go back to school. With the autumnal rite of passage comes myriad back-to-school sales and retail overload as stocks of pencils, pens, and paper are depleted in anticipation of a year full of learning. So, how do you combine school's three R's -- that's readin', writin' and 'rithmetic -- with the planet's three R's of reduce, reuse, and recycle? Here's how to follow up your green summer, full of green barbeques and fun, with a green school year.

Though it happens every year, we still seem programmed to equate going back to school with buying tons of new stuff; indeed, the average family with school-aged children will spend $594.24 on back-to-school purchases this year. And, while schooling requires supplies, we too often turn to disposable supplies to do the job -- six billion pens are thrown away in the U.S. every year, for example. Plus, going back to school offers a clean slate for a fresh start that can inspire New Year's-like resolutions, like, "This'll be the year I bike to school each day," or, "I promise to consistently pack my own lunch instead of buying from the cafeteria." While noble, these new resolutions often also require more stuff (like a new bike, to use one of the above examples), so be sure you aren't overstating your goals and biting off more than you can chew.

Preparation is important, but so is following your green prep with green behavior, extending your good green start to behaviors that last all year. For example, every ton of paper -- or 220,000 sheets--  that is recycled saves approximately 17 trees. For scale, the average school tosses 38 tons of paper -- the equivalent of 644 trees -- each year, so purchasing post-consumer recycled paper, and making sure that it gets recycled again, can make a big difference.

It's a challenge to properly outfit ourselves and our kids with supplies for another year of learning without bankrupting and pollutingour planet's resources in the process. Read on to learn more about how to go green when going back to school.

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Top Green Back to School Tips

  1. Get off to a Good Green Start
    Before hitting the malls or online shops in search of green back to school gear, plan out your day (and your year) at school, and ask yourself some questions. Are you really going to ride your bike enough to warrant buying a new set of wheels? Are you going to be diligent enough about bringing your lunch each day (or most days) to require a new lunchbox or other reusable vessel? Do you really need a new ruler (the measurements haven't changed over the summer, you know) or a package of 68 pens? Make a list of what you absolutely know you need, what you think you might need, and what you want, and carefully consider which items go in which section of the list. Once your list is made, it's time to...

  2. Take Inventory and Avoid Duplicates
    Once you've gotten in green back to school mode, most of us will be faced with the reality that getting ready to go back to school requires stuff -- school supplies, clothes, backpacks, etc. -- but it doesn't always require new stuff. Take a careful inventory of what you already have that can be used again -- think more durable items, like clothes and shoes -- and what's still waiting to be used for the first time -- extra packs of pencils, notebooks, etc. Avoid last-minute impulse purchases by making a list of what you need (and sticking to it!) before you head to the store. Following these steps will save materials as well as your dollars.

  3. Find Green Clothes
    Almost half of the money spent on back to school shopping goes to buying clothes, but new threads don't have to come with sticker shock. Hand-me-downs are a great place to get started, and thrift stores and events like Swap-o-Rama-Rama can be a fun (and cheap!) way to send your kiddies back to school in low-impact duds. Style-conscious teens can find gently used (but still ultra-hip) clothes at stores like Buffalo Exchange. If these options are exhausted before your list is done, and you have to buy new, go for well-made, high-quality choices made from more sustainable fabrics like organic cotton or bamboo rather than disposable fashion that'll wear out (and wear down the planet's resources) before spring graduation.

  4. Write this Down: Choose Greener Pens and Pencils
    Believe it or not, writing implement technology has improved since we were trudging uphill (both ways!) in the snow to get to school. The days of package upon package of disposable pen and pencil are gone, replaced by biodegradable pencils, refillable pens, and recycled versions of both. Once you have greener options in hand, encourage your youngsters to hang on to each pencil 'til it wears down to the nub, and to each pen as long as possible. The Green Office has a handful of handy kits that'll cover most bases from kids in kindergarten through eighth grade.

  5. Don't be a Paper Pusher
    Although many kids are internet masters, e-mailing homework is uncommon in most K-12 schools, where paper is still king -- for taking notes, writing papers, and making airplanes. But that doesn't mean that you or your child can't take steps to cut down your paper consumption. Buy products with the highest percentage of post-consumer recycled content possible, that is processed chlorine free (PCF), such as New Leaf Paper for printers, and Mead Recycled Notebooks for use in school; learn more about paper options on TreeHugger. Next, use these products to their maximum efficiency by printing on both sides of the paper, using paper already printed on one side for drafts (or better yet editing all drafts in the computer itself), and filling notebooks from cover to cover before purchasing a new one. And it never hurts to ask teachers if you can email in your work.

  6. Beware the Miscellaneous Supply Overload
    Bigger items, like backpacks, and stuff that doesn't get used every day, like glue sticks, colored pencils, and markers, are still necessary in many cases, but, because they either last longer (in the case of backpacks) or usually don't get used every day (with things like art supplies) you don't need them in the larger quantities typical of printer paper, pencils, and pens. Don't be tempted by the better deal on a dozen bottles of glue if you know you'll only need three bottles between now and next spring. If it doesn't have to come out of the backpack every day (or it is a backpack), think twice about loading up at the beginning of the year. See TreeHugger's back-to-school advice for more supply-related tips.

  7. Think Outside the Lunch-Box
    Don't brown bag it; instead opt for a washable, reusable container to tote your lunch too and fro. Just make sure to avoid vinyl lunch boxes which have been shown to contain harmful levels of lead. Instead, invest in a PVC-free, thermally insulated lunch bag, one made from recycled juice boxes or from organic cotton and keep lunches cool by freezing water or juice in a reusable container and putting it in the bag. Instead of using baggies and plastic wrap for sandwiches and snacks, use reusable plastic containers or an easy to clean Wrap-n-Mat. The Laptop Lunch box system is also a solid choice for reusable lunch-packing, and includes individuals containers and beverage holders. For other beverages, beware of plastic bottles which may contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical. Instead go with metal ones such as Klean Kanteen or Sigg which come in kid-friendly sizes and designs.

  8. Don't Start a Food Fight
    When it comes to the actual food that goes in the lunch box. Make extra for dinner the night before, leftovers make great lunches. Pack healthy green lunches kids will want to eat, and get them involved in choosing lunch ingredients, since they'll be less likely to pitch stuff they want to eat. Forget the mini-packs of Cheetos and Doritos; apples, oranges, bananas, and other fruit are heathful, waste-free snackables that come with their own compostable wrapping. And, don't forget: Kids need snacks as well as lunch. Try homemade granola bars (see the recipe in the Getting Techie section) rather than individually wrapped purchased bars. Or send them with fruit or vegetable sticks and a couple of slices of cheese.

  9. Walking, Biking, Busing: Green Transportation to School
    Going green while getting back and forth to school offers a familiar refrain: human power -- walking or biking -- is best; riding the bus is next; driving alone is last. Events like Walk to School Month and activities like the Walking Bus are making it easier and safer for kids to get to school under their own power; if you don't live close enough to walk, and finding a safe bike route to school is a green way to go, too. Beyond that, even though most school buses get single-digit miles per gallon, they can also hold upwards of 60 or 70 youngsters, making them a cleaner option than single-occupancy cars (Plenty did the math for a single-occupancy hybrid car vs. a bus, and the bus won). If walking, biking, or busing aren't in the cards, be sure to divide the ride and start a parent carpool.

  10. Do This Stuff All Year
    Greening your back to school experience is a great way to start the year, and a great way to make progress toward a sustainable lifestyle, but there's no reason to stop after the year has just started. Apply the lessons you've learned preparing to go back to school to other parts of your non-scholastic life, and, when it comes time to re-supply, follow the tips to stay prepared, organized, and green.

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Green Back to School: By the Numbers

  • 49.8 million: Number of students that will attend public elementary and secondary schools in fall 2008.

  • 6.2 million: Number of student expected to attend private school this fall.

  • 3.3 million: Number of teachers employed by public school systems.

  • 240: Pounds of waste generated per student each year.

  • 18,760: Pounds of lunch waste created per year by one elementary school.

  • $100,000: Amount that is spent on procuring vegetables each year from local farmers at Berkeley Public Schools, which serves 10,000 students.

  • 31: Percentage of kids who live less than a mile from school who walk regularly; half of those within a mile of school usually go by car.

  • 60,000: Gallons of gasoline that would be saved each day if just 6 percent of those who drive less than a mile would walk instead.

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics,,,, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
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Green Back to School: Getting Techie

The many faces of chlorine in paper.
Using chlorine bleach as a whitener in the paper-making process can result in the formation of harmful chemicals such as dioxins and furans, which are known to cause cancer in humans. From thumbs up to thumbs down, here are the details on various paper types:

  • Processed chlorine-free (PCF) paper contains recycled content produced without elemental chlorine or chlorine derivatives, although some of the fiber may have originally been bleached with chlorine or chlorine derivatives; any virgin pulp added is TCF.
  • Totally chlorine-free (TCF) is virgin paper created without chlorine or chlorine derivatives, using oxygen-based compounds to whiten paper instead.
  • Elemental chlorine-free with extended or oxygen delignification (Enhanced ECF) is paper created with a process that removes more of the lignin from the wood before bleaching, which reduces the energy and chemical use during bleaching. The final stage uses chlorine dioxide. This is not to be confused with...
  • Enhanced ECF with ozone or hydrogen peroxide, which, in addition to removing more of the lignin from the wood before bleaching, substitutes ozone or hydrogen peroxide for chlorine or chlorine dioxides as a brightening agent in the initial stages of the bleaching process. The final or near-final stage still uses chlorine dioxide.
  • Elemental chlorine-free (Traditional ECF) paper replaces elemental chlorine with chlorine dioxide in the bleaching process.
PCF is preferably to TCF because it contains recycled content; remember, TCF contains 100 percent virgin fiber.

Homemade Granola Bars Recipe

Most kids love granola bars, but the store bought kind are loaded with unnecessary fats and salt, and they are all wrapped individually. Here's an easy recipe for homemade.

3 1/2 cups rolled oats

1 cup sliced raw almonds
1/2 cup ground flaxseed (if you don't grind it, you can't digest it)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp canola oil
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp liquid honey

2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup chocolate chips (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. In a large bowl, combine oats, almonds, flaxseed and sunflower seeds and toast on acookie sheet for 8 minutes. Remove from oven and stir. Return to oven and toast for another 8 minutes. Remove from oven and regtun to large bowl.
  2. Add dried fruit and coconut to toasted oat mixture and mix throroughly.
  3. In a saucepan, combine oil and honey over medium heat and stir until mixed thoroughly and honey dissolves, 5 to 10 minutes. Add honey to oat mixture and mix thoroughly.
  4. In a small bowl, mix together eggs, vanilla and salt and add to oat mixture. Mix throughly.
  5. Grease a 9" x 13" baking dish and evenly spread granola mixture in pan. Press with the back of a spoon so that graola fills the pan. Sprinkle with chocolate chips if using and press into granola.
  6. Bake at 350F for 20 to 25 minutes or util granola is golden brown in colour. Allow to cool for 25 minutes. Cut granola into bars and allow to set in the refrigerator, approximately 30 minutes. Extra bars should be store in the refrigerator.

    Yields 18 bars.

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Where to Get Green Back to School Supplies

School Supplies
Fleurville -- binders from recycled soda bottles
Pilot -- writing implements from recycled materials
Mead -- paper and notebooks from recycled paper

Smencils -- naturally scented green pencils
Inntrax Twig Crayons
Office Supply Retailers
The Green Office
Recycled Products Cooperative
Green Earth Office Supply
Office Depot
Lunch Supplies
Laptop Lunches
Klean Kanteen
Eco Products
Munchlers from Built NY
I'm Organic
Green Raising
Reusable Bags
Kid's Clothes and Shoes
Simple Shoes (full disclosure: Simple Shoes has been an advertiser on our sister site, TreeHugger)
Tiny Revolution
Buffalo Exchange
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Green Back to School: From the Archives

Dig deeper into going green when you go back to school with these articles from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.
Greening our Schools & Children
Green Back to School: Become a Green School Advocate
Teaching Kids to Go Green
From Kids' Lips to Pigs' Ears?
Green Back to School Shopping
TreeHiugger Goes Back to School
Back to School Shopping with Retex Northwest
Back to School with Motherboard's Recycled Circuit Boards
The Green Route Back to School
Shopping is Costing the Earth
Sustainable School Lunches
Back to School with Barbara's Bakery
Back to School with Wrap-n-mats
The Laptop Lunchbox Reduces Waste, Saves you Cash
Reduce Waste Lose the Cafeteria Trays
Take Action Waste-Free Lunches
Advice from the TreeHugger Forums
Green Back to School Shopping
Back to School Organizer
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Further Reading on Green Back to School

Going Back to School in Green, DIY Style, from the blog, has some great suggestions on making back-to-school preparations fun, funky, and totally unique.

Check out the National Retail Federation's report on back-to-school spending trends this year.

iVillage offers a thorough treatment of green-related considerations for going back to school.

Here are some solid Green back-to-school shopping tips from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer green parenting blog.

The University of Colorado posted a handy checklist from Energy Star (pdf) for buying back to school-related gadgets and appliances.

Low Impact Living offers their take on getting Back to School Green Style!

Get Plenty magazine's take on the bus vs. car debate in Ask Plenty: Back to school: the bus beats the prius.

Associated Content has some tips for making your child's wardrobe greener before going back to school. offers their answer to the question How Can Going Back to School Be Green?

Green Piece Blog has some tips for Green Back to School Shopping.
Green Piece Blog has some tips for Green Back to School Shopping.

How to Go Green: Back to School
[by Collin Dunn and Rebecca Silver]