Back to school—the greener way

Go to the head of the class with these 8 eco-smart ideas.

Families are getting ready for the start of the school year, and although it’s hard to say goodbye to summer, there’s a certain excitement that comes with new classrooms, new schedules and, best of all, new possibilities. Not only that, but back-to-school is a great time for parents and students to consider how their day-to-day choices affect the planet. Make the school year greener with these eight easy ideas.

1. Don’t overbuy

“Back-to-school” has become synonymous with shopping—according to a recent survey by VISA Canada, Canadian students will spend an average of $677 between now and Labour Day on back-to-school items. Before hitting the mall or buying things online, ask yourself, “Do I really need that?” Learn about the environmental cost of consumption from The Story of Stuff Project. To reduce waste (and save money!), take inventory of supplies you already have, then create a list of what you absolutely must buy.

2. Buy smart

For each item on your shopping list, look for greener options. Instead of a regular notebook, how about a 100-percent post-consumer recycled notebook from Ecojot, made with biodegradable, vegetable-based dyes? Or instead of a regular backpack, how about a locally sourced, one-of-a-kind Totem bag made from upcycled materials? Thanks to a growing number of conscientious companies, it’s never been easier to buy sustainably produced school supplies—and they’re still stylish and affordable. Check out our 19 cool green back-to-school products slide show, or visit the Green Living Marketplace. Be sure to enter our Green Back-to-School Contest for the chance to win exciting prizes.

3. Buy used

Reduce waste—and the total at the bottom of your receipt—by opting for used items. Thrift stores and used clothing stores offer many quality garments and supplies at a fraction of the cost of new goods—and you’ll divert items from landfills. Check out stores like Value Village and Goodwill, or online retailers like Asos and eBay. Organize a clothing swap with friends; for inspiration or to start trading, visit Clothing Swap or Swap Style. University and college students can also get used textbooks in campus bookstores and on websites such as Amazon, Textbook Exchange and Books2go.

4. Think outside the lunchbox

Lunchtime is every student’s favourite subject. But in Ontario alone, the average student’s lunch generates a total of 30 kilograms of waste per school year! Say no to: paper or plastic bags; Styrofoam, aluminum foil, waxed paper and plastic wrap; disposable napkins; and overpackaged foods and single-use containers. Say yes to reusable lunch bags, cutlery, sandwich and snack boxes, drink bottles and insulated containers. Check out our green back-to-school products slide show and visit Waste-Free Lunch for more ideas or to take part in its waste-free lunch challenge.

5. Pack local and organic

Start good habits early! Back-to-school is an opportune time to teach your children to make healthier choices—for both themselves and the planet. Choose to pack local and organic lunches, which are more pocketbook-friendly than in the past, due to rising demand. Visit Farmers’ Markets Canada for a list of farmers’ markets in your area. Take the kids along and show them the bounty of the autumn harvest.

6. Get there the green way

Transportation accounts for a huge share of greenhouse gas emissions. How students get to school has an enormous impact on the environment, as well as their health. The greenest ways to travel are usually the healthiest. Walk, bike, skateboard or scooter, which creates no carbon emissions and also gives youth some of their recommended 60 minutes of exercise a day. For longer distances, consider taking a bus, which has much lower carbon emissions per person than a car, or purchasing an e-bike. LOL! e-Bikes, Mobility Unlimited, eVox and YikeBike all offer great models. Finally, if driving is your only option, try carpooling and avoid unnecessary idling

7. Set an example

If you’re already making an effort to follow tips one through six, you deserve a gold (or rather, green) star. But while individual actions are great, collective actions inspire long and lasting change. Urge your school to join the GREEN Schools Canada program from SEEDS, or the Ontario EcoSchools program, which both provide recognition and focus for schools taking environmental action. Ask educators to include environmental issues in their lessons, and tell them about the helpful curriculum resources from WWF, EcoKids and Environment Canada. Kids can also act for the planet and pledge to make their school greener personally, from starting a recycling club to organizing a school-wide litter cleanup.

8. Be green all year round

Greening your family’s back-to-school routine is a fantastic way to start the year, and we commend you on making progress towards a sustainable lifestyle! Apply what you’ve learned to other parts of your life all year long, and stay informed, inspired—and green . 

We love to hear from you! Share your favourite green back-to-school tips, products and inspiration by e-mailing