The time of year when kids return to school is a big deal for most families, signifying a return to more regular schedules, routines and homework. Back-to-school is also a big deal for the environment.
The weeks before school starts make up the second biggest shopping season of the year. And that long school supply list isn’t just stressful for parents and pocketbooks — it puts enormous stress on wildlife and the planet.
It’s estimated that 29 million U.S. households will spend $27.6 billion on back-to-school shopping this year. In 2017, it was reported that school supplies could cost almost as much as an average mortgage payment.
At most schools, the supply list changes from year-to-year. Some include things that are, frankly, overkill, like multiple giant plastic binders. Some schools even provide the latest laptops and tablets each year.
All of those pencils and paper, binders and books, tissues and tablets come with a production cost of land, water, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. That cost is paid by wild animals and plants struggling to survive with increasingly sparse habitat and resources.
It’s not just school supplies. There are also the latest clothes and daily transportation to school. And, with more than 55 million kids heading to elementary and secondary school cafeterias, lunchboxes also carry a hefty environmental footprint.
But returning to school doesn’t have to harm the planet. Here are five ways to save wildlife and save money when getting your kids back in the classroom.
1. Be smart about school supplies.
Before you run to the nearest big box store, spend some time with your list of required school supplies. Look for items that you can reuse from last year. When buying new products, choose options made from recycled materials and with minimal plastic in the products or the packaging. And it’s never too early to get organized — start a box or closet shelf where you can store office supplies so it’s easier to know what you already have when this season rolls around next year or when your kid inevitably loses something the second week of school.
If you’re not given a school supply list, make your own before heading to the store. Shopping with a list can help cut down on impulse purchases and ensure you’re only buying what your student really needs.
2. Skip fast fashion.
Between rapid growth spurts and even faster-changing trends, replacing clothes has become a back-to-school staple. More than 80 pounds of clothing is tossed per person in the United States every year. So instead of heading the mall for cheap pieces, check out your local thrift stores. Some resale shops only accept current fashions and popular brands. You can also organize a community kids’ clothing swap to get new sizes and styles to meet your growing student’s needs.
For older kids who may not be into swapping clothes, focus your shopping trip on what they really need and choose versatile pieces that are less likely to be worn once or out-of-style by homecoming.
3. Pack plant-powered lunches.
If every kid headed to school packed a sandwich with two ounces of sliced chicken, every school day would add the equivalent of a year’s worth of greenhouse gases from 4,700 cars. Diets heavy in meat and dairy demand an enormous amount land and water and are major contributors to climate change and pollution.
By packing lunches filled with protein-rich plant-based foods, like hummus and carrots or a classic PB&J (updated with almond or sunbutter to avoid allergy issues), you can keep your kid fueled through the day while protecting wildlife. If your student hits the lunch line, ask your school to offer more plant-based options.
4. Plan a carpool.
A recent study identified living car-free as the second most impactful way you can reduce your carbon footprint. That may not be realistic for most people, but we can all rethink our driving habits.
If your student isn’t catching the bus, carpooling with families living nearby can save energy, gas and time. If you live within a few blocks of school, leave the car at home and organize a “walking school bus” for younger kids to bring them to class as a group. It’s a great way to build community, make friends and stay active. You may even spot some local wildlife on the way.
5. Choose a wildlife-friendly service project.
If your older student has a service requirement, look for wildlife-friendly projects such as park cleanups, trail maintenance, greenspace restoration or organic community gardening. Reach out to local wildlife groups to see if they need student volunteers.
Even when there’s not a graduation requirement, the whole family can get involved in environmental protection. Making room in busy school-year schedules to stay connected to the outdoors can help foster a love of nature and create a more sustainable world.
Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.