Sustainable back-to-school: saving time, money, AND the planet

Can you believe it’s already time to start back-to-school shopping? The summer practically flew by. Whether it’s your first year at university or your last, now is the time to stock up on all the necessities for a successful school term. Here are some practical tips to make back-to-school preparations more sustainable.

What’s on your shopping list? Some of the most common back-to-school shopping items include:

  • Stationary like pencils, pens, and erasers
  • Pencil cases
  • Water bottles
  • Backpacks and bags
  • Printers and other personal electronics
  • Tea kettles, coffee machines, and other small, dorm-approved appliances

The list goes on. Regardless of what’s on your shopping list, back-to-school time can be both expensive and unsustainable. On the flip side, you can make back to school affordable and eco-friendly. How? Keep reading to find out!

Based on my 3+ years of sustainable living at university thus far, I have three key tips for creating a sustainable back-to-school shopping experience. These tips are in order of priority, meaning you should consider tips #1 and #2 before opting for tip #3. These tips are accessible for any budget, so don’t worry about breaking the bank in order to live sustainably. As you will learn, you can live a sustainable lifestyle without spending any money!

Without further ado, in order of priority, here are three tips for sustainable back-to-school shopping:

1. Take inventory of what you already own.

I don’t know about you, but I always find random pens, pencils, erasers, sharpeners and other stationary in my house. They appear in my desk drawers, baskets of crafting supplies, sometimes under couch cushions…

Why go out and buy a whole new pack of pens or erasers when you likely have unused or perfectly good items lying around your home? Do you also really need a new pencil case every year? If you get bored of the one you have, give it a new life by decorating it with fabric pens, iron-on patches and buttons. You can even make your own pencil case if you enjoy sewing – all you need is some old fabric, a sewing needle and thread! Another commonly purchased item: reusable water bottles. You really only need one to get the job done – buying a new one every year, only to dispose of the old one/throw it into a cupboard forever is counterintuitive.

Check out this hand-sewn DIY pencil case for inspiration!

Before doing any shopping, take inventory of what you already have and start using those items. Not only will this de-clutter your home and save you money, but you also help the planet with every item you use. By not buying new products, you cut down your consumption of raw resources needed to make those products, energy used to produce them, as well as emissions produced during the manufacturing and shipping.

At the start of every school term I take inventory of my supplies and make use of what I have; I have saved at least $50 each year simply by using up what I already own. Plus, I have cut down on the time and stress that comes with back-to-school shopping!

2. Check what rental/pay-as-you-go services are available.

The summer before first year, I remember roaming the aisles of my local Walmart saying “I need X appliance and X electronic device” because I thought I wouldn’t have access to these products/services on campus. When I got to university, though, I realized that I was wrong! For instance, I thought I needed a personal printer and a personal kettle. I quickly realized that these purchases were unnecessary because as a student I had access to public printers all around campus, and hot water from any cafeteria or student coffee shop. Note that some of these services may not be available at the moment due to COVID-19 restrictions, or you may not be returning to campus for the upcoming term. Double-check what options are available on campus or in your community for the Fall term!

So before you purchase any sort of large appliance/electronic, I suggest you explore what options are available to you first. Especially when it comes to printing, you likely will not print enough to make purchasing a personal printer worthwhile. Practically every assignment is submitted virtually; I remember only printing one thing in first year, which means I could have spent 10 cents at the public printer rather than $100 on my personal (and quite terrible) printer.

Similar to using old stationary, using rental/pay-as-you-go products and services on campus cuts down on your material and carbon footprint, in addition to saving you money (not to mention the pain of lugging around a printer every time you move!)

Check out UW’s printing program, and their electronic equipment rental program where you can rent things like cameras, microphones and more.

3. Purchase sustainably-made products.

Thankfully there are sustainable options for most back-to-school shopping when buying a new item is necessary. To make things simple, the W Store has put together an affordable bundle of eco-friendly stationary products. Other options include buying items that are certified sustainable through third-party programs. For example, when buying notebooks or other paper-based products, look for items that have the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) logos, or use 100 percent recycled paper. Check out these recycled decomposition books available at the W Store.

Need stationary items? You can buy plantable pencils and pens made of recycled paper or appliances. Sprout is an innovative company making plantable pencils with a lead-free, non-toxic core. You can choose from different types of seeds, and even have your pencils engraved with custom messages (no more losing your pencils when someone “borrows” them)!

For items like backpacks, bags or appliances, consider thrifting items at your local thrift store. This gives old items a new life, and is a much cheaper option than purchasing brand new items. If you prefer purchasing a new item, consider Ten Tree’s backpacks. Every bag you purchase plants ten trees!

To summarize, consider the following three words in this order when planning your back-to-school shopping: inventory, rent, source. Take inventory of what you have; rent or use public services whenever possible; purchase sustainably sourced products as a last resort. By following these tips, you can help your wallet and the planet.

How are you preparing to go back to school sustainably? Share your own tips and strategies on social media and tag us @uwsustainable.

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