Our top tips for a green back-to-school season

August 8, 2018
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Summer is almost over, and that means one thing — the non-stop back to school ads with dancing kids and the message to shop, shop, shop for the school year.

If you’re like me, and trying to minimize your environmental footprint, this time of year can be very stressful. Did you know that the National Retail Federation estimates that “Total spending for K-12 schools and college combined is projected to reach $82.8 billion?” That’s a staggering amount of new stuff that could eventually wind up in a landfill one day.

It’s not too late to plan out how you can have a successful school year and minimize the green guilt.


Take Stock

Dig in the school supply bins and pull the boxes out of the closet. Determine which items can be repurposed and reused from previous years.

  • Does that backpack need to be replaced?
  • Is that lunchbox still sturdy enough for the upcoming school year?
  • And don’t forget the electronics such as computers, graphing calculators, and printers (more on these later). Of course, they’re newer, sleeker and lighter options, but are those upgrades worth the price?

If your child wants to go back to school with new supplies, try a compromise. They get a new backpack, but must reuse the other supplies. Any of the old supplies should be donated.

Slay the Energy Vampires

Computers, phone chargers, printers — literally any device that is switched off, but remains plugged in – operates on standby power and is costing you a lot of money.

Invest in a Smart Power Strip. At $20 to $30, it’s a bit costlier than an average power strip, but is worth it. The strip stops drawing electricity from appliances that are turned off, meaning you don’t have to remember to switch the strip on and off every time. In fact, using a smart power strip throughout the house will save energy and dollars in every room.

Have you signed up for a Quick Home Energy Checkup? If you haven’t already, they are a service provided by your energy utility company at no-additional cost to you. During a QHEC, an auditor will provide you smart power strips and other energy saving devices and suggestions. Contact your electricity utility provider to learn more.

pens and pencils

Write Smart

The days of throwaway pens and pencils are gone, replaced by eco-friendly pens, and recycled versions of both. Once you have greener options in hand, encourage your kids to keep each pencil until it wears down to the nitty-gritty, and to use each pen as long as possible.  With greener pens, you won’t feel bad whenever one “disappears” or falls between the seats of the car.


Don’t Sacrifice Your Fashion Sense

Kids grow like weeds, so buying new clothes from retail stores not only wastes a lot of money for very little value, but “fast fashion” also contributes greatly to both sweatshop labor and waste. According to Eileen Fisher, a clothing industry magnate, “the clothing industry is the second largest polluter—second only to oil!”

Organize a clothing swap with your neighbors or co-workers. If that’s not an option, consider purchasing clothes from consignment shops and thrift stores. A popular trend is upselling gently used clothing at stores like Plato’s Closet and Uptown Chesapeake and using the money to purchase new-to-your-child clothing. These stores specialize in teen and young adult clothing and accessories that are in good condition and trendy. TotSwap, Maryland’s leading children’s consignment shop, is holding a swap at the Fairgrounds on September 18, 19, 21 and 23.

For clothes you are buying new, wait until Shop Maryland Tax-Free Week. This year, the first $40 of a backpack or bookbag is also tax-free. Accessory items like school supplies, except backpacks, are not included. The Shop Maryland Tax-Free Week for this year is Sunday, August 12 – Saturday, August 18, 2018.

And of course, don’t forget your reusable bag when shopping for clothes!


Pack Waste-Free Lunches

Ditch the brown bag and opt for a washable, reusable container to pack your lunch. Invest in a PVC-free, thermally insulated lunch bag, one made from recycled materials like juice boxes or from organic cotton.

Keep lunches cool by freezing water in a reusable container and slipping it in the bag. Instead of using baggies and plastic wrap for sandwiches and snacks, use reusable plastic containers or an easy to clean Wrap-n-Mat

I polled DEP colleagues and asked what steps they’ve taken to green school lunches. One colleague said she saves used cereal bags, cuts in half and uses it to wrap sandwiches. The Laptop Lunch box system is also a good choice for reusable lunches, and includes individuals containers and beverage holders. For other beverages, use metal bottles which come in kid-friendly sizes and designs.


Green the Commute

To help reduce air pollution—a major contributor to childhood asthma—investigate whether you live on or close to the school bus route.Even if your child stays late for chess club or soccer practice, most schools have an extended bus schedule to accommodate.

If you live relatively close to the school, a “walkpool” is a great way to save gas, reduce emissions, while getting your steps in! Parents take turns chaperoning a group on foot (or bike) to and from school.

Finally, if walking, biking or the bus aren’t options, organize a carpool with your neighbors.


Textbooks are Expensive — Buy Used

Used textbooks are often available for half off or more in campus bookstores, and websites such as eCampus and Amazon Textbook Rentals also carry a broad selection of used titles. (You can search by ISBN, Author or Title.) Renting or buying used textbooks is an increasingly popular option that helps to reduce the number of books being created, which can save millions of trees.

According to a statement issued by the Environmental Paper Network, “If the U.S. reduced its paper consumption by 10 percent annually, we could save enough energy to power 228,000 homes, conserve 11 billion gallons of water, and prevent carbon emissions equivalent to removing 279,000 cars from the road! Choosing used textbooks can help.”


Start a Conversation

ConversationInclude your children in the conversation about why going green is good for them and the planet. They should feel like part of the decision making and not that going green is forced upon them. Hopefully, because of your thoughtful conversations with your kids, they will make greener, healthier choices when you aren’t there watching over them. It’s the first step towards them becoming a global citizen.

Hope these tips allow you to have a happy and green back-to-school season!

By Cindie Harrison, Program Manager at the Montgomery County, MD Department of Environmental Protection

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