Smarter Living: Schools

Annual back-to-school shopping can be a frenzied and expensive ritual, with the average American family spending roughly $550 on pencils, paper, notebooks, electronics and clothing. Those mad dashes to picked-over store shelves can lead to vinyl binders and pencil cases that fall apart in two months before going straight to the local landfill. With a little forward thinking, you can avoid wasteful school-supply spending and put your dollars toward more sustainable products. Here's how.


One hundred million tons of paper are used in the United States each year, making up 40 percent of our municipal solid waste stream. The paper industry is the third-largest energy consumer in the nation and one of the largest water polluters in the world. Before you buy paper, look for the product with the highest percentage of post-consumer recycled content and "PCF" on the label, a mark indicating that the recyled paper was processed without chlorine. Staples carries postconsumer, chlorine-free copy paper and college-ruled filler paper. Visit for a wide variety of PCF and recycled paper products, including spiral notebooks.


Pens and pencils now come in many sustainable varieties, including Forest Stewardship Council-certified pencils made out of wood from well-managed forests, and refillable pens and highlighters made from recycled materials. Try for pens, mechanical pencils and highlighters made from at least 50 percent postconsumer recycled plastic, and for refillable ballpoint pens made from 50 percent postconsumer rubber tires and 10 percent preconsumer recycled plastic.


Whatever it is meant to hold, make sure you don't buy anything made of PVC vinyl, which is difficult to recycle and the production and incineration of which results in emissions of carcinogenic dioxin. Look instead for products made out of durable recycled materials and chemically inert materials, such as stainless steel.


Check out for FSC-certified recycled chipboard binders, notebooks and school supply sets with 85 post-consumer recycled fibers.


According to the New York State Department of Conservation, parents who pack a child's lunch in disposable bags or containers generate 45 to 90 pounds of garbage every year. That makes roughly 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school. Help lighten that load with reusable lunch bags and food storage containers. Avoid soft vinyl lunch carriers and products made with PVC, which can leach hormone-disrupting bisphenol A. The ECOlunchbox kit comes with a machine-washable cotton drawstring bag, three matching napkins, a two-tier stainless steel food container, and a bamboo spork. If you use plastic sandwich bags, have your child bring them home to be washed and reused, and avoid sending her off with a prepackaged single serving of juice or water. Refill a reusable stainless steel Thermos instead.


Children's backpacks are commonly made with PVC vinyl. Look for backpacks made from hemp, organic cotton or recycled materials, including rubber and plastic bags. Try for backpacks made with certified-organic European hemp.


Conventional art supplies can contain harmful ingredients, like headache-triggering xylene in markers and high-VOC solvents in glues. Outfit your budding artist with safer supplies, like Elmer's Washable School Glue and AusPen Dry Erase Markers ( Look for crayons made from soybean wax, like Prang Soybean Crayons (, instead of petroleum-based paraffin wax.

last revised 8/16/2011

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