As the school year starts back up again, there is often an influx of new products bought to replace the ones from years prior. The usage of plastic in our society can feel unavoidable. It is woven into our clothing, the food we buy at the grocery store is sealed in it, and most back-to-school shopping is either made of plastic or packed in it. Our culture is wrapped in plastic and can feel suffocating at times, not only for us but for our planet too. It is an unsustainable lifestyle, environmentally and economically.

Why Should You Care?

Those bright, colorful products on display are very eye-catching. You might want to wear the latest fashion trends, display your favorite character on notebooks, and color code your stationary.  However, buying in excess each year does produce an excessive amount of waste. 

Not only is 14,500 tons of waste produced daily from public schools in the United States but 67 pounds of waste is produced by using disposable lunch products. This alarming number doesn’t include other institutions like private, religious or homeschool groups. However, this insurmountable waste production is not the worst aspect. Plastic school products have been found to have a variety of harmful chemicals within them; Phthalates in binders, Styrene and BPA’s in food containers and packaging, PVC in backpacks and lunchboxes, and asbestos in crayons, to name a few. These can lead to unbalanced hormones, early puberty, and further health problems like asthma and, worst case- cancer. 

Not only are these products unsustainable for children and the earth, but it also affects families’ finances too. According to the National Retail Federation– Families with children attending school, ages elementary to high school, are planning on spending, on average, $890.07 on back-to-school items this year. The expenditure has increased by $4 billion, from 2022’s $37 billion to 2023’s $41 billion. To reiterate: these shopping trends are unsustainable from the amount of waste produced at the end of the year and financially unsustainable for each family involved. 

There is an undeniable anxiety when presented with unfavorable information such as this. Questions like, “How can I fix this?” or “What can I do to make a difference?” might be at the forefront of your mind. We’re here to help! Here are some tips, tricks, and helpful guidance to try and avoid the plastic problem and the production of more waste.

Where Do You Start?

Remember those 3Rs that everyone droned on about? Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle! The best place to begin your back-to-school sustainable shopping is in your own home! First, review what you already have; look for any supplies you can repurpose or continue using. These can be pens with ink left, notebooks with blank pages, and supplies with holes and/or tears that can be patched up. This can include reviving old backpacks; a quick wash and some stitching can make a bag look brand new. You can even cover holes or tears with a fun patch! 

Have you or your child grown? Hit up your local thrift store for some back-to-school clothes. It can take time to look through those racks. Online thrift stores like thredUP, Goodwill, and Poshmark are great resources for when you don’t have time. You can also contact friends, family, and community members for used clothing, which is financially the best option.  

If you need new items:

  1. Consider buying non-toxic products instead.
  2. Look at the labels for those toxic chemicals listed above.
  3. Consider buying fabric pencil cases and backpacks made of cotton or canvas; without a plastic lining on the inside.

Binders made of paperboard or bamboo are also a great substitute. Packed lunch containers and utensils are often plastic for convenience. Instead, try stainless steel or glass for containers and water bottles; bamboo is great for utensils, as long as it isn’t coated in plastic. In 2018, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund published a study about which school supplies have been tested for harmful chemicals and which have been found without.  This contains a more detailed explanation about the chemicals found in back-to-school products.

How to Advocate for a Sustainable School Year

A great way to advocate for a greener year is by sharing this information with others.  This can be done by reaching out to your district, school principal or president, or school community about effective alternatives to waste production. This can include advocating for diverse recycling bins, including paper, plastic bottles, and cans. Asking for a community composter with compost bins for all food leftovers can help reduce waste. Encouraging education programs for waste management and production for all staff and students can help inform everyone on what steps to take for a sustainable future.  As well as advocating for classrooms to recycle products each year and investing in reusable products if new ones are needed. 

The worry about an unsustainable environment can be overwhelming and daunting to advocate for. If reaching out to your school district causes anxiety, start small with your close friends! Sharing this information with others, no matter how many, can make a difference in their lives. If needed, review the basics; reduce, reuse, recycle!

About the Author: Claudia Abrantes is the PR and Social Media Intern of the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership. Claudia is a recent graduate from Kean University and has received her B.A. in Communications, with a speciality in Public Relations.