Zero Waste Tip: Buy Second Hand And Donate Items In Good Condition

Zero Waste


It is time for back-to-school shopping: backpacks, scissors, filler paper, and pencils by the ton, not to mention new clothes. It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy, supply list in hand, especially on tax-free weekend. This article looks at school supplies, the waste they generate and explores some sustainable alternatives.

Most kids use a backpack and lunchbox for school. When you go to a store, they have all the kids’ favorite characters on them, and the kids want something new and different. Backpacks and lunchboxes are two items that should be able to last more than one year. A sixth grader will need a bigger pack than a first grader, and a lunchbox just big enough for a fourth grader will not hold enough food for a growing teen, but there’s no reason that a first-grade backpack can’t last through second or even third grade, or a larger pack through all of high school.

There are two ways to achieve longevity here: first, buy quality, and second, set the expectation that these items are to be cared for, not tossed on the ground or sat upon. At school, there are cubbies, hooks, or lockers to keep them safe; there should be a special place at home as well, and not on the floor in the corner where the cat could pee in it (one author learned that the hard way). When you buy quality items, you pay more up front for the longer lifespan. Zippers are less likely to break, seams are less likely to rip and straps are less likely to fray. If your kid outgrows it, you can pass it down to siblings or friends.

When planning for lunches, use reusable alternatives to plastic utensils and baggies. Give your kids actual metal utensils (you can buy cheap ones at the thrift store if you are worried about them getting lost or tossed), a cloth napkin and food packaged in reusable containers. Buy in bulk rather than in small, single-serving packages and convenience foods, then pack the food into your own containers, or juice or milk into a Thermos. Wrap loose items in beeswax wraps instead of plastic. Purchase reusable water bottles. All schools are equipped with water bottle filling stations thanks to a NMED Recycling and Illegal Dumping (RAID) Grant. These actions save resources and it’s cheaper that way too!

When it comes to school supplies, there is often no wiggle room. They want their 24 Ticonderoga pencils, 12 glue sticks, 4 dry erase markers, plastic baggies, Clorox wipes and very specific folders. It can be hard to cut waste in this area, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Need a highlighter? Try a highlighter pencil: there’s no plastic, and it never dries out.
  • Use folders and spiral notebooks from previous years. Notebooks are almost never filled, and sturdy folders can be reused, even if you have to cover the front. Take blank pages from used 3-hole punched notebooks to use as filler paper.
  • Shop the thrift stores. They usually have tons of decent three-ring binders and other supplies.
  • For paper products, choose recycled paper. Post-consumer content is best, but any recycled content is better than none.
  • You can even find erasers made from recycled plastic, and pencils and colored pencils made from recycled newspaper instead of wood!

    When back-to-school shopping, always start in your own house. Salvage from previous school years, raid your home office supplies or trade with your friends. Next, look to thrift stores and other second-hand sources. If you have to buy new, look for recycled or sustainably-sourced content. Impress upon your kids the importance of taking care of their supplies so they may last all year and beyond. And if you have extra supplies, consider donating them to the schools.