TORONTO - Turn over a new leaf and green your back-to-school routine this fall by introducing some environmentally friendly practices to your children.
"There's kind of a starting point that's built into the launch of the school year. I think it's a good time to think about how you want to run your household or what kind of choices you want to make with the family," said Gillian Deacon, author of "There's Lead in Your Lipstick" (2011) and "Green For Life" (2008).
There are plenty of small steps you can take that won't negatively impact the environment and will save money too, from purchasing clothing and school supplies to packing lunches and transportation.
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According to the EPA, school buses drive 25 million students about four billion miles every year in America. With all that stop-and-go, lots of fuel is burned every day. Check to see if your child's bus is a newer bus that meets higher emissions standards, or if it is an old diesel bus that needs to follow stricter green standards. For more information, look at the EPA's Clean School Bus campaign to learn more about greener bussing.
How many of us throw out perfectly good notebooks because the first few pages were filled, or buy a new pencil box because the old one is no longer in style? Before going back-to-school shopping, take an inventory of what you already have and craft a shopping list around things that are really needed. Rip out the used notebook pages, and reuse it for a different class, or make a project of decorating the old pencil box with your child. Both will be good as new!
After you've done your inventory, take your child shopping for recycled, renewable school supplies. Many major retailers, including Target and Office Depot, carry recycled notebooks, and Paper Mate has come out with a line of biodegradable pencils.
Backpacks can not only be harmful to the environment, but to your child's health as well. The Daily Green cited a University of Michigan study saying 60% of teens and preteens (12-18 years old) suffer chronic back pain. Ease your child's burden by purchasing an eco-friendly backpack that is padded and well suited for their size. Check out The Ultimate Green Store or Ecocentric Bags for ideas!
If your child brings a lunch from home, try packing food in reusable containers. Snack Taxi is a great resource for many types of reusable packages, or just send Tupperware and mason jars in place of baggies.
Instead of sending your kids to school with disposable utensils, try packing bamboo cutlery (like these RePEaT sets from To-Go Ware).
A great way to start the school year is to get your kid excited about healthy eating. Sit down together and make a list of your child's favorite healthy foods, including some fun recipes you can make together for easy weekday dinners. Pack fruits and vegetables that are in season, paying particular attention to which foods have high uses of pesticides, and make sure to include plenty of different colors and tastes!
It's no surprise that kids should be drinking water instead of sugary drinks throughout the day, but sending them to school with disposable plastic bottles is not the way to go, says the Mother Nature Network. Instead, invest in a BPA-free reusable bottle. Whether your child prefers aluminum or plastic, reusable water bottles can be an eco-friendly, stylish way to send your child to school. Check out Good Housekeeping's list of the best BPA-free bottles.
If your child's school does not offer bus service, or you opt out of it, there are a number of eco-friendly transportation options. Older kids can ride a bike if you live near the school (and the path consists only of safe roads!). For the younger kids, a morning walk can be a lovely way to bond with your child. Is school too far to walk or bike? Contact the administration to see if any other students live nearby, and get in touch with local parents about participating in a carpool.
Growing kids need new clothes pretty often, and throwing away old duds is a huge waste. Why not organize a neighborhood clothing swap, or donate old clothes to Goodwill? Replace these pieces with affordable, eco-friendly styles. Some retailers include H&M, which sells organic and recycled children's clothing, and Nike, who recently unveiled an eco-friendly shoe collection just in time for the London 2012 Olympics.
Make informed decisions when it comes to buying safe plastic-alternative school supplies.
First, evaluate what your children actually require.
"You really don't need to go hog-wild. Taking the kids on a shopping spree is a way of getting kids excited to go back to school, but I think it's important for parents from a sustainability and cost point of view to really think about what you actually need for back to school," said Toronto-based Deacon.
"I think that idea of being more conscious of what we consume and how much we actually need it is a good attitude for whether it's clothing or school supplies or whatever," she added.
Adria Vasil, author of "Ecoholic Body" (2012), notes that kids grow out of clothing quickly. "Consider weaving in some second-hand and pre-loved options to reduce your footprint and your bill at the end of the shopping day."
Deacon, 46, said she's "never embarrassed or ashamed to admit I buy all my kids' clothes at Value Village. I have boys. They're going to have holes in the knees no matter if I buy them brand new for $40 or second-hand for $3. I get as much as I can second-hand or hand-me-downs just because it's just such a money saver."
Vasil encourages parents to shop for refillable pens, highlighters and pencils and for items with high recyclable content.
"If you see something with 10 per cent recycled content, move on and look for one that's got 80 to 100 per cent recycled content," Vasil said, noting that major office supply stores now carry more recycled printer paper, notebooks, file folders, Post-its, mouse pads, paper clips, binders and clipboards.
"Just keep your eyes peeled. They're sitting right there beside the competition."
Laptop computers are more energy efficient than desktops. "Look for brands that have gotten more of a green light from environmentalists for being more eco-friendly companies," Vasil said. Consult Greenpeace's annual Guide to Greener Electronics to check the brand you're considering.
Kids chew on erasers, so Vasil, who has been writing her weekly Ecoholic column for Now magazine since 2004, suggests buying erasers made of recycled natural rubber rather than those made of vinyl.
"Vinyl is a toxic plastic. It's been involved in toy recalls. It's softened with high levels of phthalates that are now banned from kids' toys but are still allowed in erasers."
Health Canada says on its website that phthalates are a family of chemicals commonly used as plasticizers and are added to vinyl plastic to make it soft and flexible. Research shows that phthalates, which may leach out of the soft vinyl during mouthing or licking and migrate into the body through the saliva, adversely affect reproduction and development.
For kids allergic to natural rubber erasers, Staedtler (www.staedtler.com) makes erasers free of polyvinyl chloride and latex. Specialty stores like Grassroots (in Toronto or online www.grassroots.com) carry recycled rubber erasers.
Vasil, 36, also advises looking for PVC-free backpacks. Many department stores carry inexpensive colourful nylon or polyester backpacks for kids, without vinyl bubble plastic decals, which are also found on lunch bags and clothing. For older kids, Amazon.ca carries sturdy backpacks made of recycled pop bottles for under $50. In the more premium price range, Canadian-based House of Marley makes cool knapsacks and messenger bags out hemp, organic cotton and recycled plastic.
The Art and Creative Materials Institute certifies art supply products as non-toxic. Look for the ACMI seal of approval.
Many schools advocate zero-waste lunches in an effort to green school activities and kids' habits.
"There's a staggering amount of packaging waste thrown away — 67 pounds (30 kilograms) of packaging waste is what the average Canadian school child throws away every year," said Deacon.
Deacon's three children use lightweight stainless-steel lunch containers with resealable lids. Also available are reusable cloth pouches and mats that can be rolled around sandwiches and then unrolled to serve as a place mat. These can be found at environmental and culinary supply stores and websites.
Vasil said there is a plastic wrap replacement made of beeswax, tree resin and jojoba oil infused into fabric made of hemp and cotton. Made by Abeego of Victoria, it's reusable. She also keeps a lightweight bamboo spork, with a spoon on one end and fork on the other, in her purse.
Buying reusable containers is an opportunity to teach young people responsibility and about being stewards of the planet, Deacon said.
"Take the time to explain to your children why you're doing this and why we're not buying the same thing in plastic anymore," said Deacon.
"My kids don't lose these things because they understand it costs more money than just buying a little plastic baggie, but they understand why we've made that choice and they feel a sense of responsibility," she said.
For Deacon's children, who are 14, 11 and nine, responsibility extends to making their own lunches. Her job is to make sure the ingredients are on hand. "They tend to make a portion size that they're going to eat so they don't waste as much food," she said.
It's not a sustainable option to drive a short distance to school. "Maybe this is the year to try leaving 10 minutes early and everyone will walk," said Deacon, noting that carpooling can save money and resources in rural areas where travelling by foot, bike or scooter is not possible.
"Over 25 per cent of Canadian children are considered overweight or obese and when there's that opportunity for a quick 15 minutes of exercise that's just easy and it saves you money, saves you on gas in your car and saves the planet, it's just such a no-brainer to walk to school whenever possible," said Deacon.
A "walking school bus" can be a community initiative and address safety concerns, Deacon said. "One child walks to one intersection and hooks up with two other kids and then they walk to another corner and get the fourth kid and then they all walk together to school."
Deacon is working on a memoir about what it was like to be an environmental advocate who was diagnosed with breast cancer and how she has reconciled that irony.
She's healthy now but says her illness made her change her outlook about exposure to petroleum-based ingredients and chemicals that are being used in the marketplace without being tested for human health impacts. "I'm very conscious of safe, plant-based ingredients wherever I come into contact with them as much as I can."