Skip the Toxic Headache: It’s Back to School ‘Not Shopping’

It’s that time again – the start of another school year, and parents need to buy clothes, backpacks, and school supplies. The list seems to get longer every year. Parents armed with lengthy, specific school supply lists are frantically searching stores for a soft zippered pencil bag (no hard cases allowed), a box of 24-count crayons (no more, no less and no colored pencils or markers), and all the other items required by the first day of class. In addition, there are also classroom items on the list that school budgets can’t cover so schools ask parents to take up the slack, sometimes several times a year as supplies dwindle.

The latest Huntington Backpack Index report estimates that parents will spend an average of $662 on school supplies for elementary school students, $1,001 for middle school, and $1,489 for high school students this year. Increased use of technology has driven up the yearly average, but notebooks and pencils still add up. And school supplies, including even backpacks, can have dangerous elements like BPA and PVC. It’s just a sea of plastic.

So, what can parents do? A lot it turns out.

Here’s your go-to list for skipping the mall.

Host a School Stuff Swap or Sale

If your kids are in school, chances are you have gotten to know some of the other parents in your school or neighborhood. Maybe your neighborhood already has a garage sale, but have you considered a back-to-school supply swap? If you include clothes, you can limit the age or size range (for example, host a sale for 1st-3rd graders). Or you could skip the clothes and open it up to a wider range of grades, so that older kids could hand down supplies they don’t need anymore to younger kids. Get some back-to-school Stuff Swap ideas on our Pinterest board.

Swap Stuff Online

Along the same lines, try “not shopping” on free exchange sites like Craigslist, Yerdle, eBay, Freecycle or your local Buy Nothing Group. These sites are terrific for finding gently used, good quality school items like backpacks and calculators.

Find the Good Stuff at Online Reusables Stores

When you are making your list, you will quickly realize that some of your supplies have some toxic elements – or it’s just so much plastic! Sites like reuseit.com helpfully suggest how to replace disposables with durables. It isn’t always easy to find bento boxes that are made out of metal, not plastic, but they have them here.

Plastic sandwich bags, plastic lunchboxes, plastic straws: can we just admit they’re either single-use, or they break fast, or that bottom line – they are a total drain on the family budget? Each typical American student tosses an average of 67 pounds of lunchbox packaging waste into landfills each school year. In a 400-student elementary school that equals 26,800 pounds, or nearly 13 1/2 tons, of just cafeteria packaging waste.

Making a change to reusable snack pouches and canteens can go a long way toward keeping the cafeteria trash cans from overflowing.

Avoid Discount Stores and Dollar Stores

We’re all watching the bottom line. This is an expensive time of year. But—beware of super-low-cost, low-quality supplies. They can contain harmful chemicals such as lead, phthalates and PVC. Backpacks can be sneaky culprits when they are made of vinyl. Cheap backpacks tend to break and wear out faster, adding to the waste since they have to be replaced more often and can’t be passed down to someone else. Low-quality pencils grind up in the sharpeners faster and cheap crayons color poorly, causing them to shrink faster and break more easily. If you don’t want a back-to-school supply do-over in November (never mind poisoning your kids), skip the dollar store.

Score Big with Used School Supplies

school_supplies copyThrift stores often sell used school items and offer them at affordable prices. If you can’t find a brick-and-mortar shop near you, you can search for used office supplies on Amazon. There are many resellers offering used items. At the same time, aim for paper made from 100% post-consumer recycled content. You can even buy pens that are 98% biodegradable (Americans throw out 1.6 billion disposable pens each year). If you need new items, Mighty Nest offers green school items and they donate 15% of your order to your child’s school.

Refurbished computers are also a great idea. Kids are learning to type and are required to use computers for schoolwork at younger and younger ages, so families often need to invest in a computer. Buying a refurbished unit lowers the demand for tungsten and other precious elements, lessens the amount of electronic waste and is easier on the budget. Many computer retailers have refurbished programs, so there are lots of options. PC Magazine has some great advice about refurbished computers (what to look for) and links to major retailers like Apple, Dell and HP that sell refurbished units.

Back to school shopping is already a challenge. Why not rise to meet it? Get great Stuff, protect your kids, and save your hard-earned cash.

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