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Going Back to School, the Green Way

August 26, 2010

By Jennifer Chaky

I’ve been reluctant to face it, but summer is winding down and it is time to prepare for back-to-school time. On the bright side, there is something fun about getting fresh, new school supplies and clothes, meeting new teachers, and seeing old friends. Preparing children for the upcoming school year is also a great opportunity to think about the environment. After all, thinking of the future of the planet is as important for our children as meeting their needs today.

According to the Center for Health and Environmental Justice (CHEJ) there are key ways to make our schools clean, green, and safe learning environments for young minds. We will explore those ways below, and you can also read how some schools in New Jersey are becoming Green Flag Schools.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle.
This is the low-hanging fruit of greening schools. By simply not creating waste, we are eliminating a lot of environmental hazards because waste always has to go somewhere—and in NJ, that usually means being burned in an incinerator that leads to nasty air quality. Schools and PTAs can cut back on waste by going paper-free whenever possible by using email for announcements and flyers, and printing double-sided when paper is a must. And of course all paper used should be of recycled content and should be recycled once it’s been used.

Another giant way to reduce waste is to encourage waste-free lunches. The average student will throw out 75 lbs of trash a year just on school lunch. That’s often more than a child’s body weight! Multiply that by all school-age children, and the amount of waste is staggering.  This is easily avoided when you pack home lunches in reusable containers such as the Munchbox or Lunchbot stainless steel containers, or Fresh Snack Pack reusable pouches instead of plastic bags, and stainless steel beverage bottles instead of plastic water bottles or juice boxes. And the beauty of having a waste-free lunch system is that it saves money because you no longer have to buy disposable packaging, and you can also buy healthy food in bulk instead of single servings that tend to be expensive, over-packaged, and highly processed. Finally, getting your school to start a school garden and composting lunch leftovers will help save on the high cost of disposing wet, heavy, stinky garbage.

Remember that recycling is just the third component in the reduce, reuse, and recycle mantra. Reducing and reusing are always the two first steps that should be tried. One fun and easy way to do this is to go back-to-school shopping at consignment stores or thrift shops. The economy gets hit twice when you buy second-hand, but the environment only once—and you will save a ton of money. And to “close the loop” on what we recycle, we must demand more products being made from recycled materials.  This is the only way that recycling will make sense—if we do something with the materials that we recycle. That is why we love this school gear made from recycled PETE plastic bottles: Green Smart Backpacks and messenger bags.

Improve indoor air quality. Along with being comfortable and well lit, the indoor air quality in schools is paramount when promoting a healthy, safe learning environment. There are two major influences on air quality in schools: the cleaning products being used, and the types of supplies being brought into the classroom. Parents need to put pressure on schools to use truly safe (and not “green-washed”) cleaning products. The CHEJ has a host of resources for parents and school administrators to learn about chemical hazards and alternatives that will suit individual schools.

Parents themselves can also help the air quality in the classroom by not purchasing for their child/ren products made with PVC (vinyl), the plastic that is used for things like binders, backpacks, lunchboxes, and folders. This material can contain a toxic stew of phthalates, lead, cadmium, and/or organotins that are especially harmful to the developing body of a child.  Studies have shown that chemicals released by the PVC lifecycle are linked to chronic diseases on the rise in children—learning disabilities, obesity, asthma, and even cancer—of which New Jersey has a higher rate of than other states. A favorite source of safe school supplies is Naked Binder and Green Apple School Supply.  But before you shop online, be sure to request of local retailers that they carry these eco-friendly products.

Integrated pest management. IPM means handling pest situations without deadly chemicals and instead using a pest-control technique that manages and suppresses pests by preventing their access to food, water, and shelter. And if the pest problem remains after these steps are taken, it should be addressed in the most non-toxic manner. Most schools have an IPM pest manager, but asking school officials about it shows them that you care and are concerned about the environmental quality of your school.

This school year, let’s not just talk green—let’s be green! And let’s carry this green philosophy into every school event and function, and let it spill over into all our lives. It’s what our kids deserve.

Further Reading
* Green 101: Eco-friendly back-to-school supplies

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