My 7 tips for a more eco-friendly back to school

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eco friendly back to school

A few years ago, when we moved to France, I had the desire to start a project to raise awareness among parents about the value of buying second-hand for back to school. I was amazed at the amount of stuff kids “needed” to kick off the new school year—from a new schoolbag to a wardrobe makeover, and, of course, a pencil case overflowing with packs of brand new markers, pens and pencils.

Of course, not only the French buy new things for back-to-school—but I have to admit that I kinda felt like an alien in the South of France with our old things, recycled pencils, second-hand backpacks and cotton hankies 🙂

The project didn’t unfold after all, because after surveying many parents, very few were interested in buying second-hand, but I discovered a great company that offered used school supplies (and there’s nothing greener than second-hand, in my opinion!) and the subject of eco-friendly back to school has been on my mind ever since.

So as we head back to school, I thought I’d share with you some of the tips we’ve developed over the years to make back to school more eco-friendly! Here they are, I hope you find them useful!

Tip #1 Sort and Reuse

First and foremost, I recommend you take inventory of what you have BEFORE you go shopping. Every time I’m a little lazy and skip this part, I regret it!

School Supplies

For school supplies, it’s best to take everything out (so to make this less painful it’s best to store everything in one place at the end of the previous year) Then, count everything and make a list with what you already have. Once you’re done, simply take your school list and subtract what you already have. This will give you a list of what you need. 

My secret tip: keep old notebooks that are not 100% used at the end of the school year and use them as draft books for homework the following year! You can never have too many of those…

Clothes

If you are used to renewing your child’s wardrobe at this time of the year, it’s a great idea use a similar approach!

Warning: when I ask my kids if they are missing anything, they always answer “no, nothing at all” (WRONG!) or “yes, lots of t-shirts, lots of socks” (ALSO WRONG, after verifying!) So now, I do what I do with supplies. I take everything out, we try on what looks small, discard what has stains or holes, and count. 

In our house, we’re pretty minimalist so we aim to have clothes for 7–8 days max, because I know that I inevitably do laundry more than once a week and when the kids have too many options, their closet becomes a mess in no time.

eco friendly back to school

Tip #2 Buy second-hand

In our house, we hardly ever buy new clothes for back-to-school (except for our kids who wear uniforms!), nor do we get a different backpack every fall. We wear what we have until it doesn’t fit anymore and try to keep things in good condition so they can be passed on to someone else. At times in life when finances were tighter, this was a strategic move—but it remained important to us, even though over time we could theoretically have bought everything back from one child to the next.

Once you’re done counting the clothes, make a list of what’s missing and then, if you want to be VERY eco-friendly, you can buy those missing items second-hand, either at a thrift store or on Kijiji or Vinted if you hate shopping in person! Otherwise, you can opt for clothes made from recycled or certified organic materials 🙂 If you buy new (because you prefer to do so or just because you can’t find what you’re looking for second-hand), remember to make sustainable choices (i.e. opt for quality clothing that will last a long time!)

We have always accepted donations from families with older children, and it has served us well! (thank you Gérald and Lydie, Tuija and Serge, Aurélie, Vanina, Laeti, Pascale and Dan!!!).

In some schools, it is also possible to buy second-hand textbooks—or even to barter with other parents who have older or younger children 🙂

Tip #3: Choose Wisely

If you must buy new, why not make the most environmentally responsible choices you can?

Designed to last

First and foremost, consider buying quality stuff. If you buy a good quality backpack for example—preferably one that is neutral in colour—you can expect it to last for many years. If you buy the trendiest bag with the Disney stars of the moment or a bag of lesser quality (which your child loves because it has lights and sparkles, for instance!), you may have to buy another one the following year. The same goes for pencil cases, lunch boxes and the likes.

Reusable forever (or almost)

For pens, pencils and erasers, choose products that can be refilled rather than items that are used and then thrown away. E.g. fountain pen with cartridges or refillable ballpoint pens.

Eco-friendly

Whenever it’s possible, opt for products made from recycled materials and keep an eye out for the environmental logos (FSC, PEFC) that can be seen on most school supplies found in stores! Most major brands even list the % of recycled material on their items.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when buying school supplies:

  • Erasers: phthalate-free, latex-free
  • Glue: preferably stick and starch based
  • Liquid paper: solvent-free
  • Calculators: solar powered
  • Ruler and sharpener: metal instead of plastic (if your school is ok with that!)
eco friendly back to school

Packaged wisely

Choose items that are not packaged at all or—if they are—packaged with recyclable or compostable materials rather than plastic (we love good old cardboard!).

If you don’t have access to bulk school supplies, buy large packages (e.g. a box of 25 pens packaged in cardboard will have less environmental impact than a set of two pens packaged in plastic!).

Prefer locals

If possible, choose locally made school supplies or locally based brands! (Psssssst, contrary to what their name suggests, CANADA notebooks are made in China!!). Among other local brands to remember, think of:

  • Herschel (Vancouver) or Louis Garneau (Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures) for backpacks, lunch boxes and pencil cases
  • Hilroy (Toronto), Storex (LaSalle) or DeSerres (Montreal), for notebooks, agendas, pencil cases, pencils, glues, scissors and more. I mention these mainly because they are affordable, but if you feel like splurging, there are lots of lovely little brands that have started to make eco-friendly stationery in Quebec—like Atelier Archipel, Papier & Latté, Baltic Club and many others!

Tip #4 Plan Ahead

This may sound like a silly tip, but I know that when I’m last minute and under pressure to act FAST, I’m more likely to grab the first thing that comes along (or even on Amazon, I admit) and check it off my list. So my advice is to plan those back-to-school errands as early as possible, and avoid desperate last-minute shopping!!!

Tip #5 Have a list and be firm

Back to school is always a bit festive and it can be tempting to let your child participate in the shopping so that they feel involved and excited about this new step!

But, to avoid the list getting longer and these little errands becoming endless (and expensive), I advise you to think ahead and identify the things your child can choose for himself. This way, you’ll avoid a headache or a frantic negotiation session at the cash register!

Tip #6 Opt for reusable alternatives when allowed

With the pandemic, I know that it’s not necessarily easy to impose your eco-friendly choices in a school environment, but you can sure try! 

Handkerchiefs vs. paper tissues

In our house, the kids have always had packs of handkerchiefs with a small hanky holder for their nose blowing needs at school. We checked with the teachers/educators to see if it was really a problem not to bring the “2 kleenex boxes” that are on the supply lists at the beginning of the year and for the most part they were very accommodating. 

eco friendly back to school

Food and Water

Our family is super well equipped in this area! Each child has an insulated lunch box, a small BENTO box that contains cutlery and compartments to store sandwiches, veggies and fruit. We also have ZipTops—which are absolutely WONDERFUL silicone snack bags that help us avoid buying individually wrapped snacks (it happens to us too on occasion that being said, we ARE human!). Add in a cloth napkin (or a mini-TSHU) to the equation and the perfect eco-friendly kit is complete!

Each family member also has their own insulated water bottle so they can have water on hand at all times (less chance of sharing germs too, if that’s the kind of thing you’re worried about!).

Tip #7 Identify EVERYTHING

I know it’s annoying—and for full disclosure I resisted doing it for a long time… But when you buy quality stuff, it’s nice to be able to find it when it gets lost!!!

To get this over with as quickly as possible, I use a sharpie and I write the kid’s name on the labels of their clothes, on a face of each pencil, on their pencil case, their notebooks, and everything in between. And if the Sharpie doesn’t work, I stick small white labels with their names on it. Starting ages 6–7, I encourage the kids to participate by writing their own names on items that aren’t too small and complicated to handle! #teamworkmakesthedreamwork

That’s all I have to share about how to have a more eco-friendly back-to-school this year! Oh—and one last little tip: don’t forget to talk to your kids about your approach, that’s how they’ll become more sensitive to their own choices as they grow up!

Marion Poirier
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