By Brian Clark Howard
There are few things more exciting and satisfying than shopping for new school supplies. The anticipation of achievement, of learning, of having new teachers and reconnecting with classmates runs high. Some children even look forward to the end-of-summer doldrums. In 2003, Americans spent an estimated $14.1 billion on back-to-school items, meaning the sector is no small industry. But behind all the chaos and bright colors in the back-to-school aisles are the equivalent of eco-landmines. Reams upon reams of paper, largely made from virgin fibers, result in rampant deforestation. (Americans toss so much paper that a year's worth would stretch from Los Angeles to New York, standing 12 feet tall.) Those new-product smells that kids often love are largely off-gassing of volatile organic compounds from plastics and adhesives, and the metal and plastic components are made of nonrenewable resources that are damaging and dirty to extract. But you don't have to force your kid to go to school with a 19th-century slate and burlap sack. Today's new green school supplies are high on style and usability, as well as increasingly affordable.
- Paper products: Paper takes up a huge amount of landfill space and requires enormous amounts of water and chemicals, not to mention living trees, to produce. These days, a wide range of recycled (and chlorine-free) paper and notebooks is becoming increasingly available, as well as price competitive. Check out Mead's line of recycled paper notebooks, and recycled filler paper at Staples, Office Depot and elsewhere. The Rescued Paper Note Books from Britain-based Sukie are ultra-hip and cute, and are made from discarded paper that is folded to expose its white backsides. Ecojot offers a catalog full of beautiful and kid-friendly notebooks that are made from 100% postconsumer waste and vegetable-based dyes. The paper mill is even run on alternative power (biogas). Also try to avoid binders and other supplies made with vinyl, because PVC polyvinyl chloride is extremely toxic to make, resulting in release of potent dioxins.
- Writing utensils: Kids love to climb and sit under trees, so the idea of using pencils that are tree-free often resonates with them. Check out Paper Mate's EarthWrite pencils, which are made from recycled newspaper and cardboard. You can also equip their little hands with biodegradable pens that are made from cornstarch or recycled paper, instead of petroleum plastics.
- Other supplies: All those incidental supplies can also really add up, in terms of price and resource use. Many are now available with recycled content (including scissors, paper clips and sticky notes). Also, don't forget to search your drawers at home for extras that might be already lying around. For a fantastic box to keep supplies and notes stored away, consider Dorothy Spencer's recycled ruler boxes. Each one is unique, since they are handmade from old rulers, roller skate wheels and faucet handles. At $170 they aren't cheap, but they are certainly cool.
- Backpacks: Instead of oil-based nylon and plastics, give your kid a cool, original backpack made of recycled rubber or natural fibers like hemp. Don't forget to send your child off with an organic apple for teacher!
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