Going Green Back to School

The first lesson of the school year has come early this year, before Ursula and Virgil have even entered their new classrooms. I could call it a nature lesson, a science lesson, or a lesson about changing how we act; I was as much a student as Ursula or Virgil.

School starts tomorrow, so we’ve been buying supplies. We have the required five color-coded binders for Ursula, and the compass, protractor, and calculator she needs for her middle-school math class. Virgil, who is entering second grade, selected folders with puppies on the covers and wanted the pencils with pictures of animals.

Until this year, we did little to prepare for their lunches and snacks beyond making sure they each had a decent lunch bag and we had a drawer full of re-sealable plastic bags. I focused on their food and that what they ate was healthy and safe.

In our family, Daddy makes the lunches. (He’s way better at getting up in the morning than his night-owl wife.) Last year, Jim started to complain — not about making the lunches, but about the containers he was putting them into. He told me about BPAs (bisphenol-A), phthlates, and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), about scientists who are raising concerns that these chemicals are toxic. He thought we should get rid of the sippy cups and hard plastic bottles we sent in with the kids’ drinks, and while we were at it the plastic bags and containers.

I will admit, I ignored him at first. I just didn’t want to know, because once I knew, I would have to do something with the knowledge.

But then I got a work assignment to learn more about wildlife on northern freshwater lakes, and the issue hit me from another angle. Talking to wildlife biologists, I learned of studies that track the effects of such synthetic chemicals on a number of animals, especially those, like polar bears and whales, that occupy the tops of their food chains. I learned that the alphabet soup Jim had tried to tell me about could be lumped together as endocrine disruptors, and that they seemed to wreak havoc with reproduction, prenatal development, and brain function. I learned of male smallmouth bass with eggs in their testes and birds whose eggs weren’t hatching. I thought of the sippy cups on our shelves and the bags in our drawers.

Europe and Canada have banned some of the troubling chemicals, but the United States has not. However, state legislatures in Connecticut and California earlier this year prohibited BPA from use in plastics used by infants and young children; California has also banned phthlates from similar products; and Maine recently joined Washington state in a similar action against PBDEs.

So I added another item to the back-to-school list. I hardly knew what to call it — I just wrote “new lunch stuff.” I went online and bought SnackTaxis, reusable snack bags sewn by a cottage company in western Massachusetts and decorated with pandas, beavers, and turtles; a lunch bag made out of recycled juice boxes by a women’s collective in the Philippines; and stainless steel containers and bottles. I read some of the information on the SnackTaxi tag to the kids: Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used and discarded worldwide — more than 1 million a minute; more than 100,000 animals in the oceans die after eating discarded plastic bags.

The statistic about the animals dying upset Virgil. It bothers me, too, I told him. That’s why we’re switching to the new lunch stuff.

I wish all parents who care about nature and their children’s health had new lunch stuff on their back-to-school lists.

Learn more

Legislation was introduced in March 2009 to ban BPA in the United States.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Labels: , , , ,