The start of a new school year is here, and for parents and students that means one thing—it’s time to stock up on school supplies. School supplies are an essential part of every student’s life, but all those colorful folders, plastic binders and dividers, markers and crayons, staplers, glue sticks, and backpacks don’t always fit in with a zero-waste ethos. However, that doesn’t mean that a waste-free school year is out of reach, and if you’re wondering how to be a zero-waste student, or how to raise one, we have plenty of great recommendations for eco-friendly school supplies that will support your zero-waste journey.
When figuring out what to buy, consider that ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ are at the top of the zero-waste hierarchy, and the best zero-waste school supplies you can get are likely the ones you already own. Rather than shopping for new items, see what you already have at home and use it up before buying something new. Once you’ve shopped your own closets and drawers at home, it’s time to draw up a supply list of reusable, recyclable, and sustainable back-to-school supplies.
The Best Zero-Waste Stationery
Let’s talk stationery! Who doesn’t love a fresh new notebook, ring binder, and set of pens and pencils? But what’s not to love is all the plastic that tends to come with it. Thankfully there are plenty of planet-friendly options on the market these days to help students go zero waste.
Notebooks and folders
When buying notebooks and folders, look for plastic-free items made from FSC-approved or recycled paper and without any glossy or plastic coatings on the covers, and of course metal spirals on spiral-bound notebooks. While a lot of eco-friendly stationery comes in neutral colors, to brighten up your school year we recommend Decomposition notebooks, which are made with 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper, printed with soy ink, and are themselves recyclable. The composition books also feature a sewn binding instead of one made with glue.
Another option is Wisdom Supply, which wears its zero-waste ethos on the covers of its notebooks and other stationery in a witty and irreverent style. The website includes a DIY section to help both teachers and students cut out even more waste.
While in most cases notebooks can be almost completely recycled, writing utensils are hit and miss. Classic pencils do create a minimal amount of waste, but the real zero-waste foils are plastic pens, markers, highlighters, and mechanical pencils with plastic graphite refill containers. How can students keep this plastic waste out of their pencil cases?
Look for refillable pens, which have a vastly longer lifespan than plastic ones. For zero-waste college students, fountain pens are even better because they are refillable with ink that is readily available in glass bottles to cut down on more plastic waste. Our top zero waste pens are from German company Lamy, which makes high-quality fountain pens and offers ink in a variety of fun colors.
Markers are a bit more challenging—although some companies do sell refillable markers, they’re generally expensive. Alternatively, you can try highlighter pencils or marking pencils, but they may not be up to the task in some circumstances.
Even classic wooden pencils have a zero-waste upgrade—pencils made from recycled newspapers. Treesmart makes both recycled newspaper pencils and colored pencils that are produced in an eco-friendly way and eliminate the need to use virgin wood resources. They can be sharpened in a pencil sharpener just like a normal pencil, and the waste is fully biodegradable and compostable.
And speaking of virgin resources, don’t forget that many erasers are made of virgin rubber, latex, or synthetic materials, so look for recycled or natural rubber erasers instead.
The Best Zero Waste School Bags and Accessories
Now you need a place to store all those zero-waste office and school supplies. For bags and other accessories, start at the top of the zero-waste hierarchy by shopping your own closet or buying second-hand, if possible. Then seek out items made from recycled material from brands that make durable products and offer a lifetime guarantee.
For the best backpacks for older students, we recommend Patagonia’s Black Hole line made from 100% polyester recycled from plastic bottles and covered by their Ironclad Guarantee. For kid’s school options, go for Jansport backpacks, which are available in loads of fun colors and patterns and come with a lifetime warranty.
To store writing utensils, metal cases make a great durable alternative to the usual fabric or plastic pencil pouch, which is likely made of synthetic fabric with a plastic zipper and will eventually wear out. Our top recommendation is the aluminum pencil tin from Wiscom Supply Co., which is durable and lasts for years but can be easily recycled with other metal items when it finally wears out.
For high school and college students, zero waste lunch boxes may be the plastic storage containers you already have at home, or even glass jars. Younger students (and parents) will benefit from the convenience and security of a proper lunch box—but skip buying a new plastic one here too. Stainless steel lunchboxes like the ones made by Planet Box are great for kids because they come with separate compartments and can be decorated with a selection of unique magnets.
The Best Zero-Waste Electronics for Students
These days the right technology is essential for nearly all students of all ages. Yet the electronics industry is hugely wasteful, with an estimated three tons of e-waste generated each year as people upgrade to the latest models or are forced to replace broken devices that are difficult to repair.
So how can you stick to your zero-waste commitment with electronics? To help stem the tide of e-waste, we recommend buying a computer that is used or has been refurbished. Buying used also has the added bonus of being a wallet-friendly option that’s perfectly suited to a student budget.
Laptops and computers
Many countries around the world have their own platforms to buy used laptops and other electronics. In the United States, Swappa is one of the best places to safely and securely purchase used laptops and other computers, as is Back Market, which even shows you how much e-waste your purchase saves. Popular retailer BestBuy also has their Outlet site where they offer a selection of refurbished and pre-owned devices.
Printers and scanners
Printers are another device that have become a necessity in the days of homeschooling, but unfortunately, they’re notorious for their wastefulness due to the plastic cartridges, which tend to dry out quickly, need to be frequently replaced, and often end up in landfill. If doing without a printer is not an option, our top recommendation is a printer with refillable cartridges. There’s also the Epson EcoTank Printer, which has refillable ink tanks instead of cartridges.
Although scanners don’t generate waste like a printer, they can still become e-waste further down the line. If your printer doesn’t come with a scanner, try looking for a used one at a second-hand shop before deciding to purchase one new.
Finding zero-waste supplies for home and school isn’t as hard as it might seem at first, but it does require a little extra digging—both in stores and in your own closet at home. That extra effort pays off, however, in that you not only stick to your zero-waste commitment but also help pass on sustainability values and knowledge to the next generation.
For more information and tips making the switch to zero waste both at home and in your business, subscribe to zerowaste.com or speak to one of our TRUE Advisors.