Zero-Waste Back-to-School

It’s August, so for a lot of us mamas and dads, that means back-to-school shopping. Yay! Right? Until you see those ridiculously particular school lists from their teachers. Please purchase ‘pre-sharpened pencils’? That’s a thing now? If you try to live a sustainable life you may be finding it difficult to know how to get all your children’s supplies, without going against your low-impact lifestyle.

Writing Utensils

Depending on what grade your child(ren) are in, you may be asked to buy wood pencils, mechanical pencils, markers, crayons, colored pencils, highlighters, sharpies, ball-point pens, or dry erase markers. (Did I forget anything)? A lot of these items come in plastic or are made of plastic. Also, a lot of times we don’t use these items until they are completely empty. Mine were always half-way full or more, yet I would still buy brand new ones the following year. Coming from a family with 5 children, that was a lot of wasted supplies.

Use what you have

My first recommendation, as is a lot of other people living more sustainable lifestyles, is use what you already have. I always have a million pens and pencils lying around. Use what was leftover from last year. My mom had 4 bins each filled with a different utensil. We still have items from when I was in school 5 years ago!

Pencils and Pens

Next, if you have a choice between mechanical pencils or wood pencils, go with the wood pencil. The mechanical is plastic and the refills come in plastic. If you don’t have a choice, choose a mechanical pencil that is known to last a long time.

Colored pencils are another popular item. There is an entire process to making Crayola colored pencils, you can read about here. They talk about 4 ingredients but don’t say what those ingredients are that make up the lead. I found elsewhere that the colored pencils don’t actually contain lead or graphite. They are wood casings with a wax or oil base inside. The artist grade colored pencils are higher grade which means higher price, but they are more durable. However, I would not get these for a 1st grader as they may not be able to take proper care of them.

I have found some pencils that when you are done with them, you can plant the stubs and they turn into plants. You can choose between vegetables and flowers. They are made by the brand Sprouts and you can purchase them for 14.95 on Amazon.

Highlighters and Markers

Requests for highlighters are often on older kids lists so that they can highlight notes. These are, again made of plastic. Highlighters are made of dyes, trace alcohol levels, and glycol. Glycol is said to be harmful only in large quantities, but is still a chemical.

There are refillable highlighters, but the refills come in a plastic bag and the refills are made of plastic, so it kind of defeats our purpose.

There is this nifty creation called highlighter pencils. They last forever, don’t bleed through paper, and you can compost them. Find them on Amazon from clicking the photo below. It comes with 4 highlighter pencils and the sharpener for $12.99!


Does anyone else get 3 to 4 crayons every time they eat out at a restaurant? Save them! Crayons are a common request in schools and they can be used for a lot of fun at home crafts, too! These typically come in a cardboard box you can recycle, but because of the wax and dyes coating the cardboard, you cannot throw it in your compost.

Crayola ColorCycle – Recycling program

I have heard people say you can send in your old Crayola markers and they will recycle them down and reuse them. They will accept any brand of markers, not just Crayola. Sounds amazing, right?

However, once I researched it further, this is what I found:

Through ColorCycle, the old markers get turned into diesel fuel, or wax compounds for asphalt or roofing shingles. I found that the plastic-to-oil technology is called pyrolysis and still causes pollution. They are also sending them to trash incinerators which burn the plastics to generate energy. This is dirty energy! Worse than coal power plants! You can read the entire article here.

I think that Crayola is definitely taking a step forward in trying to do something, but there are better ways, as in stop producing single use plastic. Maybe reduce the plastics used, use recycled plastic, make them refillable so they last longer. At least they are trying, though. One step in the right direction is better than no steps at all.

Donation Products for Class

A lot of teachers only get a limited amount of money to spend on their class. In order to provide the children with exciting activities, he/she must purchase supplies which dwindles that money. Teachers also don’t get paid a huge salary so when they ask for toiler paper and paper towels, that’s probably why.

You can go with an Eco-friendly alternative and maybe speak with the teacher about encouraging other parents to do so, as well. Eco friendly paper towels and toiler paper are not difficult to find. I get this giant box of toiler paper wrapped in paper that lasts us 6 months or so. It’s all paper so all recyclable.

There is also ‘Who Gives a Crap’ toilet paper not made from trees and 50% of their profits go to help build toilets for others in need.

The prices are very reasonable, too, 6 rolls of paper towels only $16, 12 boxes of tissues only $16, 48 rolls of toilet paper for $48 (that’s only $1 a roll!), and you get free shipping with orders over $25.

I have not tried these yet because I just recently read about it and have a ton of toilet paper still. Once I run low, I will get them and let you know what I think. All the reviews are wonderful.

A lot of school lists I looked at also asked for sanitizing wipes or hand sanitizer. I don’t like sanitizers. I think they dry out my hands and I would prefer to wash them with soap and water. They also kill both the good and bad germs which we need for a good immune system.

Contact the teacher and see if they would be okay without this item. Explain your journey to a low-impact lifestyle (maybe you’ll inspire them) and if they insist, see if you could make your own. Here’s a recipe I found and tried and loved!


3 tbsp Aloe-Vera gel (go with the glass bottle if you don’t have any around)

1 tbsp Witch Hazel

1 tsp Vitamin E Oil

10 drops total of your combination of essential oils (These are known to have anti-bacterial properties: tea tree, eucalyptus, orange, lemon, oregano, thyme)

Bottle (This can be one with a pump, like an old plastic shampoo bottle)


  1.  Mix all ingredients EXCEPT essential oils
  2.  Place mixture in bottle
  3.  Add your 10 drops of essential oils
  4.  Shake to mix
  5.  Done!

If you don’t want to make your own, I see a lot of health stores carrying hand sanitizer spray in glass spray bottles. Donate that and ask for the bottle back when it’s finished. Those bottles are handy for everything, especially essential oil sprays.

Study Supplies and Writing Paper

We are in school to learn, so we must read and usually take notes. That requires paper, composition notebooks, spiral notebooks, and graph paper. Then we want to keep those notes organized so we have folders, dividers, binders, and post-it notes.

I don’t think that folders, binders, or dividers need to be replaced every year. Mine lasted quite a while. I would suggest getting a neutral folder that will last as your style changes.

For paper and graph paper, I only see it in plastic coverings, but if you don’t have to have loose-leaf, opt for a notebook.

There are some notebooks made entirely out of recycled paper you should check out. They are called decomposition books rather than composition books. There are spiral notebooks made out of recycled paper as well, just check with the manufacturer to see what the metal spiral part is made from and if it can be recycled.

There are Re binders and bare board binders. They are recycled and recyclable and really gorgeous. You can find all sorts of Eco binders online. Same with dividers! I found a brand called naked that has recyclable tabs. They don’t have those plastic pieces on them. There are also Re tabs to match your Re binder. Find them here.

Other common supplies

Some other things you’ll get asked for are scissors, 3-hole punch, a protractor, and a ruler. You may need all of these or only a combination. For the scissors, ruler, and protractor, go with a stainless steel one or wood so that it lasts you forever. I don’t use a protractor (I’m sure art students would) but I use scissors and a ruler all the time.

If you need to het a 3-hole punch, I would go with a sturdier one. Not those dinky ones for a couple bucks. They never worked very well for me and I always threw them away.

A lot of times you will be asked to bring a pencil sharpener, pencil box, and erasers. If you can, just get a mechanical sharpener and have your pencils sharpened before leaving for school. There are also sharpeners made out of wood and metal. Those are very Eco-friendly. Stay away from the little plastic ones. They never worked that well, anyway.

For your plastic pencil box, see if you have one lying around, or if you can use a fabric pouch. Erasers are a must! I haven’t found an Eco-friendly alternative, but they are made from rubber. Also, those big pink erasers always lasted me forever! I don’t think I ever saw one get fully used up.

Back packs and lunch boxes

I used to get a new backpack every year for school, but mine were never ruined when I was replacing them. I have a Jansport that has lasted me at least 6 years. They have a lifetime warranty and if something did go wrong with it, they would replace it for me. Investing in a good backpack you can reuse for years is the way to go! Get something neutral so that it remains while your style changes.

Same thing for lunch boxes. Find a good, sturdy brand that will last a while. There are these stainless-steel boxes called Planet boxes that have interchangeable magnets so you can switch out the style each year. They are a little pricey, but are built to last a very long time. There are also the Eco-lunchbox on Amazon for $34.71.


Ready For School?

As you can see, you don’t need to purchase everything 100% new. First, look through what you already have that you can reuse. Then, see if you can find things second hand. Finally, if you still haven’t been able to find some things, go with an Eco-friendly, low-waste alternative.

And don’t be afraid to reach out to the schools and teachers to educate them, respectfully. They might actually enjoy the knowledge and the fact that some parents are concerned about our environment. Heck, maybe they’ll even make it into a lesson!

Let me know in the comments any other low-waste school alternatives you have found on your journey.

12 thoughts on “Zero-Waste Back-to-School”

  1. Hi, I am a teacher and I totally agree with you. In my case, our school, and not only teachers, ask for supplies. I think I’m going to share your article with them 😉
    I loved the pencils that grow into plants. That is such a great idea! And I agree, use materials from last year, don’t buy everything new. I see parents spend so much money on new school supplies … On top of that come the books, uniform, notebooks, etc … It all amounts to a huge expense.

  2. My kids went back to school a couple of weeks ago, they start really early here. Both of my kids are now in high school and thankfully they use Chromebooks for most everything. We’re mostly done with the days of glue sticks and all those other types of supplies.

    I love the stainless steel lunch box and might pick up a couple, maybe even one for me 😁.

    I really love the idea of doing back to school in a sustainable way, and I appreciate your efforts.

  3. Jordan,

    This is a great post about sustainable living and using what you have for school supplies. The sprouting pencils are a great idea, I am going to check them out. I do remember when my kids started school that there is always stuff left from last year, sometimes they just have to round them all up. But using sustainable products is a fantastic example and a good message to teach the youngsters at an early age. Very informative and helpful information

    Nice Post

    Take Care

    1. Thank you! We’ve created a world where everything needs to be new all the time, but why? If we have perfectly usable items already? Glad you enjoyed!

  4. I love the concept of zero waste, my friend Timo is a parson professor, & is one of the leading fashion designers in the field of zero waste, I know your article is about back to school supplies but the philosophy all comes from the same place. I like that you’ve shared very practical advice on minimizing waste, my sister would love an article like this for my niece who is turning 7 the 24th of this month.
    The stainless steel plant boxes are very well designed, & pretty practicable for adults & kids.

  5. This is an awesome way to get your kids back to school, but in an environmentally friendly way. And some of the items look so unique, the kids will probably think they are really cool (earning them some major brownie points among their peers!)

  6. When I moved out of state, I donated all of my leftover school supplies to my younger sister who is still in high school. It felt good to be able to pass down pencils, notebooks, and paper to someone I love that I knew would still be able to put them to use. Thanks for sharing other ways to be sustainable when it comes to school supplies!

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