I woke up this morning and remembered the plastic-free predicament looming in my near future:
School. Supply. Shopping.
This plastic free business is no joke when it comes to the long lists of plastic-wrapped, plastic products that you know will be tossed at the end (and sometimes the middle) of the school year.
And teachers, I get you. As a preschool director, I know some supplies are way better than others. Some glue sticks aren’t even worth being made, they’re so awful. So in trying to shop for school supplies, I tried my best to stick strictly to the lists, yet still reduce our plastic footprint.
The bad news: My eyes are crossing a bit from thinking so hard, googling, reading, comparing and cross checking school supply lists.
The good news: I just did a lot of the work for you if you want your school supply shopping to be a little more plastic free!
With my computer and notepad before me, the three supply lists to my left, and several colored pens, I summoned the children.
“Children,” I said, “we need to talk about school supplies. Here are your lists, go see what you have and bring it to the table. Then we will see what we can do to be as plastic-free as possible.”
My teenager nods slowly, eyeing me with skeptical, sleepy, teenager eyes: “I don’t want to be the weird kid, though.”
I hear ya, MC. 8th grade is for real. And 6th grade, for that matter, where her brother is headed. 2nd grade, I think my youngest will be fine - you can still get away with a lot in 2nd grade.
The kids got right down to business with step one of plastic-free-ish school supply assembly:
Step 1: Use what you have
Look at all the loot they’d been stashing in their rooms! We had plastic divider tabs with pockets, highlighters, pencil sharpeners, new crayons, scissors, the specifically requested pencils pouches, pencil boxes and more. A little hand sanitizer still hanging around (or alcohol) rubs off old sharpie from last year. We sorted their respective supplies into some labeled paper bags.
The kids will also be using the same backpacks - no reason to have a new one! I won’t go into sustainable, waste-free lunches here, but same goes for lunch boxes and reusable containers.
Step 2: Shop Zero Waste
My first stop online was the awesome San Fransisco-based store I came across in my research, Wisdom Supply Company. They have lots of zero waste school supply products, aiming to replace the plastic-laden items we are so accustomed to purchasing. I was able to get the kids’ sticky notes, index cards and natural rubber jumbo erasers without any plastic wrapping! If we want more options like this to exist, we have to support them.
Next, Amazon came to the rescue.
Step 3: Buy in bulk
I was able to find tons of the listed supplies on Amazon in bulk, which means they come in cardboard boxes instead of plastic blister packs like usual. And when you have 3 kids, there won’t be much to save for next year (which is another great plan!). It took a little work to be sure I was getting the amount I wanted, the brands requested and that they were indeed in box without plastic, but it worked.
Bonus: shopping in bulk saves you quite a few pennies!
(Note on shipping: I do request my items to be shipped together, saving packaging and fuel. We recycle all our packaging as well.)
Pencils: We needed 114 sharpened #2 pencils (what?!). So I ordered a cardboard box of 150 pencils for $12.49.
Highlighters: We needed a very specific brand of highlighters and I was able to find another cardboard box full, that we will supplement with the colored like-new markers they found in their rooms.
Dry Erase Markers: All 3 kids needed Expo, according to the list. Bulk boxes for the win!
Cap Erasers: Now these will be stored for next school year too, because a box of cap erasers = a lot of cap erasers. We need 48, but we will get 144. And no plastic. Yay.
Glue Sticks: These are a plastic-free nemesis. They are used up so fast. I know how easy and convenient they are for students, but oye, the short useful life of that forever plastic tube (especially when kids lose the caps…). After a long confusing search dealing with ounces, grams, plastic and boxes, I found the requested brand, size and total number of glue sticks needed. I missed the mark with the “disappearing color,” but that’s just that.
Step 4: Alternative options
Binders: “1” 3-ring with inside pockets and clear view cover; 2” 3-ring binder with inside pockets and clear view cover; 1'“ 3-ring heavy duty binder with pockets” etc. I needed a lot of binders, with clear view plastic wrapping. They make lovely recycled cardboard binders, but that isn’t what the teacher ordered. I stumbled upon a biobased option, and ordered up. Samsill’s Earth Choice Binders are a pretty good option:
-Combined biobased and recycled properties offer a perfect balance of sustainability benefits
-Composed of at least 69% biobased material including environmentally friendly polypropylene cover made with 25% plant based renewable polyethylene
-USDA Certified Biobased Product
-Chipboard is made from 100% recycled material
-PVC free – acid free and archival safe
-Biobased content tested using ASTM D-6866
-Lifetime product guarantee – A Binders for Life product
Rulers: Choose wood or metal for an easy plastic-free switch.
Pencil Sharpeners: We have some regular metal pencil sharpeners floating around - easy substitution!
Colored pencils & crayons: Buy in a cardboard box, not plastic-wrapped. Luckily these are easy to find!
Scissors: There are lots of fully-metal scissors out there. For us, we reused kid’s scissors we already had.
Step 5: Buy recycled
Composition notebooks: Decomposition notebooks are made from 100% recycled material, and I think they are adorable. But I’m struggling to find wide ruled, so we shopped at Target and found some made from recycled material. Just take a few extra seconds to look at the backs and you will figure out which ones are made with new material, and which are made from recycled products.
Spiral notebooks: Look for recycled paper, paper/cardboard covers instead of plastic covers. When it’s time to recycle, pull out the wire spiral- things like that tangle up machinery at recycling facilities. Put the paper in the recycling.
Lined filler paper & graphs paper: Very hard to find without plastic wrapping! Again, opt for recycled paper when possible, and put the plastic in the plastic bag and film recycling bin at your local store.
Copy paper: You can get copy paper (recycled is best!) wrapped in paper instead of plastic. Hooray!
Step 6: Dispose responsibly
With all that hard work, some things will still be in plastic, some will need to be broken down to be recycled and disposed of properly. Recycle your crayons, pens and markers through ColorCycle, Crazy Crayons, or TerraCycle. Break down spiral notebooks and binders to recycle the paper and cardboard. Reuse and don’t toss old supplies at the end of the year. Plastic folders last forever. Take the sanitizer or alcohol to old sharpie and clean them right up.
Step 7: Take Action
Consider talking to your school system about ways to be more plastic-free when it comes to school supplies. If you would like to try different options than the supplies requested, contact your teachers and let them know about your aim to be plastic-free.
Take it one step at a time and don’t be dismayed at the plastic items you still may have to buy. We had to buy the few sets of plastic divider tabs, a clear plastic ruler, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, as requested by the school.
But by doing our best, taking a little time to choose what we use, we are creating significantly less plastic waste!