Your guide to eco-friendly back-to-school shopping: Save money and reduce waste by shopping sustainably
By Mythreyi Rajasingham
It’s that time of year again—the time for back-to-school shopping, when students search for the perfect supplies to help them through the academic year ahead.
While the thought of returning to school can feel intimidating and occasionally unpleasant, the tradition of back-to-school shopping has solidified its place in most students’ lives as something exciting.
Yet, what frequently goes unmentioned is the amount of school supplies that end up in the trash. For instance, around 580,000 tonnes of books, including textbooks and notebooks, are disposed of each year (CBC, 2020). This amounts to hundreds of millions of usable books being wasted (Dcunha, 2022).
Rather than overspending on school supplies only to see them go to waste, you can REuse, REduce, and REcycle for a heftier wallet and a healthier planet.
Reusing old school supplies is a straightforward approach to both reducing waste and saving money. Items like backpacks and locks, which are considered long-term supplies, can serve well for four years or longer depending on their quality and how well they are maintained.
To make the most of this strategy, take some time to look around your home and gather any school supplies, from pens and pencils to journals and folders, that you have collected over the years. This way, you will have lots of options to pick from when choosing what to use for the upcoming school year.
After you have decided which school supplies to reuse, consider repairing ones that are broken or damaged, and give them a good cleaning if they are dirty. For example, if your old backpack has a wonky zipper or a loose strap, you can try to fix these issues yourself, have them addressed by a local repair cafe, or bring them to a local tailor. You can often restore old items to a like-new condition with a little bit of time and effort.
This approach not only makes your supplies feel new again but also helps the environment a lot. By using your old school supplies again, you are reducing the demand for new products, which lead to waste and pollution via their production and transportation processes (Minos, 2022).
While reusing school supplies is a great approach to lowering your carbon footprint, you might find that a few items are in short supply at home and need to be bought from stores. In such cases, it is perfectly fine to buy new items when necessary, but it is recommended that you prioritise quality over quantity.
For example, when faced with a choice between a 20-pack of fragile mechanical pencils and a 5-pack of sturdy ones, go for the 5-pack. A well-made mechanical pencil lasts longer than a flimsy one, and when it is time to discard them, there will be less waste because you have bought fewer items.
Another suggested approach is to buy second-hand supplies from friends and family, platforms like Facebook Marketplace and Karrot, or local thrift stores (Astoul, 2023). You can also rely on totally free markets (like the WRG’s FreeMarket event) and local swaps to obtain these items. And if you have any usable school supplies that you want to discard, consider selling or donating them to those who could use them. For example, did you know that the WRG accepts working stationery items and school supplies at REmarket?
Lastly, to cut down on both household clutter and waste, choose reusable items over disposable single-use ones. For example, instead of using single-use plastic snack bags or water bottles, opt for containers that can be washed and reused for many years.
By following these suggestions, you can buy school supplies at a more affordable cost, make long-term savings by choosing reusable options, and have a more eco-friendly household.
In addition to reusing old school supplies and reducing the amount of new ones you buy, you can also recycle your old supplies when they can no longer be used and opt for new ones made from recycled materials.
For example, Staples Canada accepts used pens, markers, and toner cartridges for recycling in many of its stores. In partnership with Staples, the WRG also accepts these items for recycling at its triennial REmarket event.
Similarly, if you find yourself needing a new backpack because your old one is damaged and cannot be fixed, look for bags that are made from recycled materials, such as plastic bottles, or those that come with lifetime warranties.
While the American brand Terra Threads offers backpacks made from recycled materials, the Swedish brand Fjällräven provides backpacks with life-time warranties (DiBenedetto, 2022).
However, it is important to know that some companies engage in a practice called greenwashing, where they falsely advertise their products as sustainable so that they can sell them for a higher price.
One strategy to help you avoid buying items that have been greenwashed involves using the platform Good On You. This website allows you to research brands and assess their impact on the environment, labourers, and animals.
Take the brand Herschel Supply Co. as an example. Good On You rates the brand as “not good enough” because its products are reported to include harmful chemicals, and it has failed to openly share essential details about its worker protection policies.
With the Good On You platform, you can avoid brands that greenwash and make thoughtful back-to-school purchases that are good for the environment and those living in it.
With the back-to-school season prompting students to search for new supplies, it is important to give equal attention to waste reduction.
By adopting the three REs mentioned in this article—REuse, REduce, and REcycle—a more sustainable approach can be taken. Reusing old supplies cuts down waste and expenses, focusing on quality over quantity reduces environmental impact, and considering recycled options and avoiding ‘greenwashing’ aligns choices with sustainability.
This marks a new era of conscious back-to-school shopping—one that celebrates mindful choices, sustainability, and a brighter future for all!
This article was edited by Lumida Editing & Proofreading
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