By Lindsey Wilson on Aug 10, 2009

8 Ways to Green Back to School

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This story is part of Earth911’s “Green Eight” series, where we showcase eight ways to green your life in various areas.

Don’t be fooled: Even if Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” has been playing nonstop lately, the beginning of another school year is quickly approaching.

Back to school is the perfect time not only for digging out that alarm clock, but also for adopting some greener habits you and your whole family can practice all year long. Below are eight tips worthy of a gold—or green—star.

Photo: Evergreener.wordpress.com

Search for pencils made from recycled materials. Or, save money and waste and resharpen last year's pencils. They'll be good as new! Photo: Evergreener.wordpress.com

1. Don’t Overbuy

It might be exciting to enter the back-to-school section of your local retailer—so many shiny things and bright colors! But don’t be tempted to buy more than you need. First, check what you already have in stock.

Did your child really use all 500 sheets of paper you bought last year? Is every single pencil worn down to the nub? Did the scissors spontaneously break? Only buy what you really need for the year and the amount of “stuff” you don’t bring home will be astonishing.

2. Purchase Recycled

It’s unavoidable: You will have to buy some things for the upcoming school year. But instead of a regular backpack, how about one from TerraCycle made out of juice drink pouches? Or recycled pencils made from old denim or newsprint? Retailers such as Target and Office Max and brands such as Pilot and Post-It have all embraced the green trend. Just be sure to check your recycled school supplies for durability and minimal packaging.

3. Opt for Used

Nothing signals the back-to-school season more than a mountain of shiny new books, right? Not necessarily. If you’re looking to reduce your waste—and the total at the bottom of your receipts—seriously consider buying used, opting for online or renting.

Used textbooks are often available for half off or more in campus bookstores, and Web sites such as eCampus and Amazon carry a broad selection of used titles. Some schools are even experimenting with online textbooks, reducing both your costs and strain on your backpack.

Renting books is a growing option that helps to reduce the amount of books being created. In fact, according to the Environmental Paper Network, if the U.S. reduced its paper consumption by 10 percent annually, we could save enough energy to power 228,000 homes, the carbon emissions equivalent to removing 279,000 cars from the road and 11 billion gallons of water.

4. Swap and  Sell

Somehow in the last year those shorts got way too short. Every school year demands a new wardrobe, but this doesn’t automatically have to mean a shopping spree at the mall. Organize a clothing swap among your friends; you can pass on those tiny shorts to another grateful parent and your child could end up with a Hannah Montana hoodie or a Transformers T-shirt.

Even if your school requires uniforms, everyone will be just as happy to trade in their old for “new.” Same goes for flea markets, consignment shops and thrift stores. Someone’s old skinny jeans could become your daughter’s new favorite fashion statement.

Can’t find the perfect look in your friend’s closet? Make your own! Take one of those 30 T-shirts  you got hanging up and do some DIY re-purposing. If buying new is a must, opt for some eco-friendly options and check out clothing from recycled goods.

5. The Wheels on the Bus…

Do you drive your children to school every day? Do you carpool? Or do they walk, ride their bikes or take the bus? To help reduce air pollution, investigate whether you live on or close to the school bus route. Even if your child stays late for music lessons or soccer club, most schools extend the bus schedule to accommodate. If the bus isn’t an option, set up a carpool with your neighbors or arrange a “walkpool,” chaperoning a group on foot to and from school. You’ll save on gas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, get some exercise and maybe make some new friends in the process.

Photo: Schoolwires.com

Don't waste last year's unused paper! Tear it out and keep it in a folder for notes. Photo: Schoolwires.com

6. Lunchtime!

Lunch is everyone’s favorite subject. But if your child is taking a brown paper bag filled with baggies or pre-packaged snacks to school every day, that adds up to a lot of trash. Invest in a lunchbox free of lead and, if they don’t already come with it, reusable plastic containers, cloth napkins and a thermos.

Just by eliminating all that daily wasted plastic and paper, your child could save 67 pounds of garbage a year. And don’t forget to lead by example and start toting your own lunchbox to work (kitschy ‘70s cartoon characters optional).

7. Do Your Part

Even if you’ve forgotten how to do long division, you can still teach your kids to recycle when you’re not around. Inquire if your school has a recycling program, and if the answer is yes, explain to your children how to use it.

If not, ask if there are any plans to implement a recycling program and if you could volunteer your time to help make it happen. Organizing a compost heap in conjunction with the cafeteria or setting up paper, plastic cardboard and aluminum recycling through the school’s waste hauler are good places to start.

8. Monitor Electronics

Computers, graphing calculators, printers—it seems like a lot of school supplies nowadays plug in or run on batteries. Even if your child has mastered turning the lights out when they leave a room, there are two more ways to conserve energy even when their gadgets are off. Purchase rechargeable batteries instead of new, and invest in a Smart Power Strip.

At $30 to $40, it’s a bit pricier than a typical power strip, but it’s completely worth it. This strip stops drawing electricity from appliances that are turned off, meaning you don’t have to remember to switch the strip on and off every time. Sounds like something that could be useful all over the house, doesn’t it?

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      • Trey Granger

        Many schools also have recycling programs to raise money, such as paper recycling bins in the parking lot. That’s something to look for on the first day of school, since most school waste ends up being paper.

      • Pingback: More Info – Less Garbage « Yes Thank You Please

      • Denise

        It is great to lead by example. I do need to become more aware of all the packaging that I use to cart my lunch to work. I do use more plastic bags than I need. I should invest in more rubbermaid containers and use them to cart fruit and pudding or jello instead of buying pre packed jello and pudding.

      • Logan

        Overbuying is definitely something to look out for. I work at Office Depot and every August we have crazy sales on Back-To-School items: folders for a penny, packs of cheap pencils for a dime, that kind of stuff. Although I’m sure the schools and parents are helped out by that, my experience has been that the low, low price detracts from how much people actually need those items. They want it because it is cheap, not because they need a dozen pencils or little plastic pencil sharpeners or whatever. Then they get snippy when we tell them x is limit 3 per customer at the insane sale price. And of course nothing “green” is ever on crazy-sale.

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      • http://www.xacto.com/Catalog/Sharpeners/Electric Electric Pencil Sharpener

        Although it’s tough to convince kids that last year’s stuff is just as good, it’s important to start the trend of re-using early. We always re-used last year’s supplies and bought a few new ones as needs. Not only was it green but money saving!