Green Back to School Ideas

Reader Contribution by Lindsey Siegele
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At 8 years old, I thought the first day of school was a holiday. I got to wear a new outfit. My mom fussed over my hair. My brother, sister and I posed for pictures (at home and climbing onto the bus). The first day of school had all the makings of a holiday celebration, and I was often so excited to go back to school that I would only sleep for a couple of hours the night before my first day.

Today, I wish that I could bring back that first-day-of-school adoration. That passion that made me burst into tears when my mom told me I had to stay home because of a lousy case of pink eye is long gone. Now, as a 24-year-old graduate student, I see supermarket shelves stocked with backpacks, notebooks and writing utensils and cringe. I prepare myself for spending hundreds of dollars on school supplies, most of which I don’t particularly want (my enormous calculus textbooks spring to mind).

This year will be different. I’m preparing myself for my final year of school ever. In the future, the only back-to-school shopping I’ll have to do will be for my excited children who also believe school is something to celebrate. So this year, I’ll add a little bit of excitement to my school anticipation by attempting to make my school year as eco-friendly as possible. These green back to school ideas will get you on your way to an eco-friendly school year as well.

Take the Bus, Carpool, Bike or Walk

When I was in elementary and middle school, riding the bus was as much a social endeavor as a means of transportation. Many a young memory was formed around strange conversations with angry bus drivers. I took the bus because it was what young people were supposed to do.

Then, in high school, I turned 16. My parents bought me a used car that I’m still driving today. I drove to school every day, and began to view the bus as a dirty, lesser option. Most of the kids in my high school behaved the same way. In my area, 16-year-olds were given cars almost as a rule rather than an exception, and many of them were more deluxe than any car I’ll ever own. We drove our cars to school, and as the school year wore on and more of us earned our licenses, the parking lot filled to maximum capacity.

Looking back, I can’t help but think, what a terrible waste. There was a bus stop a short distance from my house. Think of all the gas I didn’t have to use and all the pollution my classmates and I created just because we wanted to drive our cars.

Taking the bus is often one of the easiest ways to make going back to school eco-friendly. School busses are timely in most cases, air conditioned (unlike my car) and a good way to get to know people.

If your family lives close to school, walking or biking are great options. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents walked to and from school every day (in 5 feet of snow, uphill both ways), but we’ve largely lost this tradition. In respect to treating the environment well, biking and walking are head and shoulders above driving. Plus, that little bit of healthy exercise could really benefit today’s stagnant youth.

If driving is your favorite option, carpooling with some nearby friends saves on money and carbon emissions.

These transportation tips are great for kids in grades one through 12, but university students should pay attention as well. At my university, parking permits cost an arm and a leg, and those parking spots aren’t very close to school buildings anyway. Our bus system is excellent, and mine takes me straight to my building. Many students bike or walk to school on nice days. If your university has a good public transportation system, consider leaving your car at home or only driving it for off-campus errands.

Bring an Eco-Friendly Lunch

Much like my transportation habits, my school lunch habits got increasingly worse as I got older. In elementary school, my mom allowed us to buy hot lunches once a week. On the other four days, my siblings and I brought fabric lunch bags containing sandwiches, carrots, cookies and some change to buy milk.

By middle school, sack lunches were so last year, and so was eating anything with nutritional value. I ate pizza, french fries and ice cream and then washed it all down with soda. High school was very similar, but with better, greasier food.

One thing I remember about buying lunch at school was that nearly everything was served on Styrofoam. There were small Styrofoam plates, mini Styrofoam trays and large Styrofoam trays with wells for each course (in my case the french fry course and the pizza course). The Environmental Protection Agency says that 500 years from now, our Styrofoam lunch trays will still be sitting in landfills. I must have used hundreds when I was in school.

The simple solution to this challenge is, of course, to send your students off to school with sack lunches. Brown paper bags are a better option than plastic, but the best choice for the environment is a bag that won’t ever be thrown away. From Spider Man lunch boxes to bento boxes to homemade fabric lunch sacks, the options are fun and endless. has a great selection of environmentally-friendly lunch containers including some made from old juice packs.

Packaging inside a lunch sack can be eco-friendly as well if you ditch plastic sandwich and snack bags and choose small storage containers that can be washed and reused. Include some silverware (if necessary) that can be used more than once, and your family’s school lunches will be uber-green.

Buy Green School Supplies

Ah, school supplies. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than unopened, crisp white notebooks, newly-sharpened pencils, perfectly pink erasers and maybe a fancy Trapper Keeper for good measure (mine was decorated with an illustration of a pink parrot). Although I could write sonnets about my love for brand new school supplies, I never gave a thought to how those supplies affected the environment.

Writing utensils, in my world, last about a week. The pens and pencils I buy are good quality — the problem is me. I believe if I were ever on the run from the law, I would be doomed simply because I leave a pen or pencil everywhere I go.

I’m sure not everybody goes through writing utensils as quickly as I do, but many of us probably treat pens and pencils like they’re superfluous. If our pencil-dropping habits are here for good — and I think mine probably are — the least we can do is find greener options.

Recycled newspaper pencils are earth friendly and fun. Paper Mate makes pencils made from reclaimed wood.

It may sound silly, but writing utensils with a little extra pizzazz probably won’t be lost as fast. Whether that means buying special monogrammed pens or decorating one yourself, a pen with a little bit of sentimental value is less likely to be treated like it’s disposable.

It’s easier than ever to find a notebook and paper made from recycled materials. Office Depot and Staples sell recycled paper notebooks, and OfficeMax sells a 100 percent recycled printer paper.

Anybody who’s attended a university can attest to the fact that textbooks are a major investment. Buying used books and selling them back to the bookstore is a good eco-option. Some professors will even make textbooks available to check out in libraries.

A new option in the world of textbooks is renting. Companies such as Campus Book Rentals and Book Renter allow you to rent college textbooks for a fraction of what you might spend at a campus bookstore. Renting books isn’t just good for your pocketbook, though. Books that are used more than once don’t end up in the trash as quickly. The environment wins, and you do too.

Encourage Your School to Do More

Individuals and families can make a big impact on the environment by being more responsible consumers, but schools collect tons of waste on their own. Students and parents can talk to school officials about decreasing waste and recycling. Tell your school and friends about your green back to school ideas. Sometimes a single voice can make a big impact.

Lindsey Siegele is the Senior Web Editor at Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find her on .