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Save Money with an Eco-Friendly Approach to School Supplies

by Diane MacEachern


Diane MacEachern

Diane MacEachern is the author of Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World Read more »

It’s fun to go shopping for school supplies, but it doesn’t take long for costs to add up -- especially now that teachers are sending home supply lists that include not only pencils and paper but items like hand sanitizer and water bottles, too.

Happily, parents who choose to “go green” end up saving lots of money, help cut down on waste and reduce their kids’ exposure to questionable chemicals. These tips might give you a few ideas for greening supplies that kids and teachers will love.

Before You Go, Make a List

  • Together with your child, pull together all of the leftover supplies from last year. You’ll save a lot of money and reduce the amount of clutter in your house by figuring out what you already have that you can re-use. Generally, pencil cases, backpacks, lunch boxes and art supplies can last a couple of years before needing to be replaced.
  • Compare what you have left to the supplies on the list the teacher sends home. Have your child use a brightly colored crayon to circle what you don’t have, then take that circled list with you when you go shopping.
  • Browse yard sales and explore opportunities to swap with neighbors and friends for items like clothes, sports gear, and musical instruments.
  • If your child needs a new backpack, choose fabric over vinyl and plastic that might contain questionable chemicals.
  • Clean up usable items that your kids have outgrown and drop them off at your local thrift store, or swap with family or neighbors.

Pens, Pencils, Crayons, Markers
Little kids may eat crayons. All kids chew on pencils and sniff markers. And pens? Sure, kids write with them -- on their skin, not necessarily paper.
No wonder parents increasingly treat the tools kids use to compose or color the same way they treat the food they eat: with attention to the ingredients they're made from and the impact they're going to have on your kids' health. That means looking for supplies free of lead-based pigments, synthetic fragrances, solvents like methyl alcohol and toluene, formaldehyde, and other chemicals you'd never serve as part of a meal or snack. Consider these options:

Pens - A pen is one of those school supplies that subliminally teaches kids it's ok to waste, since we're so used to buying them in packs of 10 or 20 and tossing them into the trash even before they're completely used up. SOLUTION? Kids older than seven should be able to use a refillable pen without too much trouble. In fact, teaching kids to refill and reuse something as simple as a pen helps them learn at a young age about simple and smart alternatives to simply throwing things away. Every major office supply store sells refillable pens with non-toxic ink; you can also shop on line. Look for ink made from water, nontoxic pigments, vegetable-based glycerin, and sodium benzoate, a food-grade preservative. If your kids are too young to actually refill an ink cartridge, get a pen with cartridges that can be replaced.

Pencils - Most modern pencils are made of graphite, not the more dangerous "lead" that they're commonly described as. The most eco-friendly sharpened pencils are also made from recycled paper, wood or cardboard. Refillable mechanical pencils, which replace the graphite but not the entire pencil, reinforce the re-use idea, and are pretty accessible for almost any child. Another benefit? Kids won’t need a sharpener with a mechanical pencil; all they usually have to do is twist the top of the pencil to get a longer, sharper point.

Crayons - Crayons made from beeswax or soy offer a more eco-friendly alternative to those made from petroleum-based paraffin. The colors and texture are just as rich, and they pose no health or environmental threats to the kids who use them.

Markers - Look for markers whose low- or no-toxicity has been certified by the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) or the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Even then, give markers the "sniff" test. If you take off the cap and find the odor overwhelming, don't use the marker, and definitely don't give it to your child: chances are, it contains xylene, toluene or other chemicals that cause nausea, headaches and in some cases have been linked to cancer. Choose water-soluble, no VOC markers if you can find them, or stick with colored pencils as highlighters.

Paints - When buying kids' paints, again, look for no- or low-VOC, water-based products, preferably certified non-toxic by an independent third party and made in the U.S.

Paper - Nothing should be easier than buying ruled, graph and construction paper made from recycled fibers. The higher the amount of recycled content the better. Also, look for paper that is not chlorine bleached to reduce the environmental impact of paper manufacturing.

Lunch Boxes and Food Containers
Aim for reusable stainless steel lunch boxes or lunch bags free of PVC plastic. If you have a hard time getting your child to remember to bring the box home, put a deposit on it! Set up a piggy bank or money jar in the kitchen, and put a dime or a quarter in it every time the child brings the box home. It won’t take long for this fun activity becomes a habit; meanwhile, let the child use the money for a special treat or to make a meaningful contribution.
And rather than bag up sandwiches, cookies and fruit in a plastic baggy, try using reusable stainless steel containers, reusable sandwich wrappers, and reusable water bottles. Stainless steel is preferable to plastic, but if you must buy plastic, make sure it is BPA-free.

Hand Sanitizer
Some teachers require kids to bring in hand sanitizer to help reduce the classroom spread of colds and germs. Look for sanitizer that is alcohol based, rather than anti-bacterial. Doctors are increasingly concerned that our over-use of antibacterial cleansers is actually contributing to the rise of diseases that resist antibiotics. Most kids can stay perfectly healthy simply by washing their hands in warm soap and water.

What are your best tips for greening your child’s school supplies? Please let us know!

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