Going Green Back to School

As an outdoors family, we care about the health of our environment — from the plants, animals, and natural features just outside our front door to those that we occasionally visit or only read about. Over the last several years, we’ve tried to make our daily habits correspond to that care. And that includes our back-to-school shopping.

I’ve recently come upon two useful documents for back-to-school planning and shopping. The Environmental Protection Agency has put together common-sense general guidelines that save the environment and save money. (Families are expected to spend an average of $606 on back-to-school purchases this year, according to a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation.) Some of the EPA’s recommendations:

• Don’t automatically buy new. Can a child reuse last year’s backpack, binder, or pencil pouch?
• When you do buy, choose products that are made from recycled materials, such as pencils made from old blue jeans and binders made from old shipping boxes.
• Buy products with minimal packaging or that come in bulk sizes. Packaging accounts for more than 30 percent of all the waste generated each year.
• If you’re buying electronics, looks for the Energy Star logo, which means that the computer or gadget meets strict efficiency guidelines set by the EPA.

The other document is a fantastically detailed booklet from the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (founded by Lois Gibbs in 1981 after her activism prompted one of the nation’s first toxic chemical clean-ups at Love Canal) for purchasing PVC-free school supplies.

What’s PVC, and why should we avoid it? The short answer is that both the manufacturing process for this ubiquitous plastic and its incineration in landfills (or just heating it in a microwave or on the stove) releases a group of chemicals called dioxins, which are known to be toxic to humans and to wildlife. In addition, phthalates are often added to PVC products to soften them. These plastics additives have been banned from baby toys and bottles, but not from other children’s products. More than 90 percent of all phthalates are used in PVC plastics.

The 17-page booklet, available online along with a shorter guide, offers specific tips for avoiding PVC school supplies and a detailed list of manufacturers that offer PVC-free alternatives. Some of the tips:

• Avoid products with the 3-arrow recycling symbol with the number 3 or initials PVC, which indicates that the product is made with PVC.
• Avoid backpacks with shiny plastic designs as they often contain PVC.
• Avoid metal encased in colorful plastic, like the binder clips and paper clips in bright colors, alas. These usually contain PVC.

Next up: Packing Green School Lunches.

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

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