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Greening Back To School

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Author: Erin Charter, Environmental Defence

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Greening Back To School

Back to school. Three words that, depending on whether you're a kid, parent, or teacher, are bound to either fill you with dread or delight. Whether you're looking forward to it or not, here are a few ways to green your back to school lineup.


Does your school have a litterless lunch program? If not, maybe this is the year to start one up! Back in my school days, I carried a bright orange Popples lunch box (complete with Thermos) to school every day. These days, there are lots of reusable containers out there to help you cut down on lunch waste, so this one should be a no-brainer. Of course, we recommend cutting down on waste and toxins, so go for glass, metal, or other non-plastic containers wherever possible. Another tip: rather than stocking up on pre-packed single servings of kids' snacks, opt to buy things in bulk or larger quantities and package them yourself in your new containers.

While you're greening your kids' lunchboxes (and maybe yours too?), why not green the stuff inside too? Back to school time also happens to be harvest time, and the time is ripe to fill our bellies with delicious, local fruits and vegetables. Carrots, tiny tomatoes, and green beans from your local farmers' market all make portable and healthy treats.

School supplies:

If you know where your food comes from, do you know where your paper comes from? Make sure your paper, notebooks, and binders are made of recycled materials, and chlorine free paper. This goes for pens and pencils too. In my quest for the perfect pen, I've seen options made of biodegradable corn, recycled cardboard, and even a refillable model. If your little one is too little for a serious pen, you'd best keep an eye out for the greenest crayon. While most crayons are made of paraffin wax, a by-product of big, bad petroleum, there are alternatives that are soy based.

As with lunches, there are greener options to contain all these goodies. Poly vinyl chloride, or PVC, contains some icky chemicals, like phthalates, lead, and cadmium, which can leach out and put your kids at risk. PVC is commonly found in backpacks, but can also sneak into art supplies, clothing, lunchboxes and notebooks. Check out the Centre for Health, Environment & Justice's Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies to steer clear of these nasties!

Books and clothes:

I will never forget the "recycle, reduce, reuse" song I learned in grade four (seriously, that song will stick with you for days!), or the lesson about recycling wherever possible. This lesson (see? Kids do learn things in school!) doesn't end with bottles and cans. I have been counting on my favourite thrift and vintage stores to stock my wardrobe with one of a kind pieces for years. It's great to be able to give an item a second life, and to know that I'm cutting down on the environmental costs of all that manufacturing, packaging, and transportation. Any pennywise University student knows this trick also applies to books. See if you can get your hands on used copies of textbooks, or use an e-reader to cut down on paper and trips to the store.


Has the day you have long dreaded arrived? Not the first day of school, but the day that your teen has started wearing makeup? Just like a lot of the other products we use on a daily basis, makeup can contain toxins that endanger our health. Thousands of cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting, and allergy-inducing substances have been banned or restricted in European personal care products, many of which can still be found in Canadian products. Help your teen (and yourself!) shop for safer cosmetics with our Personal Care Products Pocket Shopping Guide.

It's been a short summer… Keep the summer love alive by doing your part to keep your family green and safe this school year.

Erin Charter, Environmental Defence. Visit our website for more information at:

20 Holly Street, Suite 200, Toronto, ON M4S 3B1
Tel: (416) 496-8633   Toll Free: 1-800-551-4381