10 ways to reduce waste and cost for back-to-school

It’s that time of year when all businesses are keen to take your money for pretty, shiny, new school supplies.  Everywhere you go, you see and hear “BACK TO SCHOOL SALE”, and every time it gives you just a bit more anxiety.  But take a deep breath, parent, guardian, teacher, or student.  It need not be the expensive whirlwind to get back to school; blinky shoes won’t make you learn a new math concept any faster – they are just a flashy bonus (I never got mine).

Flashback: it’s 1997 and I’ve gotten my supplies list for my next school year.  ONE PENCIL CASE.  TEN HB PENCILS.  TEN ERASERS.  TEN BALLPOINT PENS (BLUE OR BLACK).  ONE PACKAGE CRAYONS.  TEN GLUESTICKS.  FIFTEEN DUO TANGS.  FIVE BINDERS.  TEN NOTEBOOKS.  I’m sure the list went on.  And I’m sure each year my parents dreaded us going back to school.  We didn’t have a lot of money, but these lists were the be-all-end-all of lists, and we bought everything every year.  Note: we bought everything NEW every year.  Like, every school year I’d have a new pencil case?!  Not because my old one broke.  But because the list said so!

Side note: The following advice is from the perspective of me, a former student, current parent and classroom teacher.

1) beware the list: take another deep breath.  There are things on the list you will need, but perhaps you do not need ten of one item?  Perhaps you still have some leftover from last year?  Or another sibling?  Perhaps in your desk or drawers at home you have some pens, pencils, and notebooks to start the year off with?  Perhaps YOU still have some of YOUR old school supplies (I hoarded mine, so yes, I do, dating back to 1997…)?  You will not be punished if you do not buy everything on the list.  School can be unpredictable, so flexibility is a must.  Same goes for school supplies.  Start with the basics, and as the months go on throughout the year, add if need be.

2) reusable water bottle: skip the plastic bottles, cans, juice boxes, straws, and go basic with a reusable water bottle.  These can be refilled all day long at school, and usually teachers have a space where they are kept, so the likelihood of it getting lost is minimal.  These can also be purchased super cheap at thrift stores.  Kids bored of water?  Teach them to make their own lemonades at home and fill into the reusable bottle.


3) second-hand supplies: speaking of thrift stores, go visit one before you buy anything new for back-to-school.  I was at one today buying my child some PJs, and I saw a whole section on school supplies: whole sets of crayons, pencils, various sizes of notebooks, duotangs, binders, packs of paper, all clean, cheap, and neatly arranged.

4) needs vs. wants: let’s go back to blinky shoes for a second.  I wanted them so bad.  I never got them, and I am so glad my parents never gave in!  Of course, kids want what others have, but we can help change this mindset.  They are just school supplies.  Students do not need a new backpack every year, unless of course their previous broke beyond mending.  There are many things that are just wants, like themed pencils, or the latest coolest characters on water bottles, etc.  Keep it simple.  They.  Are.  Just.  School.  Supplies.

5) communal supplies: talk to the classroom teacher about communal supplies.  The year I taught Grade 2, I had a class-set of most supplies in large baskets: markers, sharpies, rulers, crayons, gluesticks.  I eventually even had a collection of metal spoons because I kept finding them and nobody would claim them; helpful, as the school was wasting money buying plastic ones, so I would wash them and the kids would use them as they needed.  Some supplies may already exist in the classroom, and you won’t need to buy them.

6) reuse: not sure why we never caught on to this – probably because at the time I was in elementary school, “reuse” wasn’t a well-known concept as it is today.  I’m glad things are changing.  Have a look around your home.  You could have most supplies already in your home, from previous jobs, school years, or siblings.  Perhaps ask family members, friends, or neighbours to share supplies.

7) have a plastic-free lunch: as a teacher, I have seen far too much waste come out of a student’s lunch.  Not only are there several single-use plastic items that are costing you money, but they are also not teaching the student responsible environmental habits.  Things like plastic reseal bags, cling wrap, and plastic cutlery, are a complete waste of money, and since they are usually only used once, the money will continue to be spent on them.  These can be replaced by washable, reusable plastic containers or bento boxes, reusable cloth snack/sandwich bags (our local What-A-Bag makes these, as well as cutlery/straw pouches), or stainless steel boxes that can be reused every year.

Snack pouches made by What-A-Bag

8) DIY school supplies: if you want to get real thrifty and low-waste, make your own school supplies.  Now, I’m not sure how to carve a pencil or make my own paint (it can be done), but you can make binders from cardboard or other materials, and duo-tangs from various types of paper, as well as notebooksPencil cases or pouches can also be a homemade project if you have some sewing skills, or if you want a new challenge!  You are only limited by your creativity.

9) recycled/refillable: there are many items that are made from recycled material, like binders, or folders, and you can even get these nifty highlighter pencils that can be composted.  Paper products can be purchased from recycled material, and of course can be recycled or composted when finished.  Also important to remember that there are recycling programs out there for things such as dry erase markers, pens, toner, and other types of markers; Staples and Crayola have such programs.

10) get involved: parents/guardians, teachers, students, and all support staff are what make up the school community.  When we all work together, more can happen, and we feel more connected with everyone working towards the same goals.  Supporting composting, recycling, and waste reduction efforts, garage sales, and clothing swaps at school, whether spearheaded by students, teachers, or families, is an important part of our environmental responsibility.  Bring your ideas to the table, and make the school a better, greener, more fun place!

One week of trash from 23 students – recycling and composting available at school


  1. This post has so many great ideas! Thank you. We reuse a lot of our school supplies, too, and we’re open to using whatever free opportunities come our way, like the recycling bags full of Dalhousie University notebooks and binders we found out for curbside pickup. My son went to grade two with a Dalhousie binder, and it’s going back for grade three! We still do buy new items at Staples, but never the entire list due to reusing old items. Some items, as you said, we simply don’t buy. This year the teacher requested ziploc bags and I didn’t want to buy those, so I’ll just see what happens; I don’t imagine she’ll contact me specifically to send any in!

    One thing I’ve recently started doing now that my son has an allowance is ask him if he’d be willing to pay for an item if it’s something he really wants but it isn’t actually needed.That helped us solve at least one stalemate this season already, as he was actually willing to put money toward a new pencil box. Since he was willing to pay, I allowed him to get it. Not sure if that makes me stingy or smart…but it is teaching him how to prioritize.

    I guess it’s a bit of a balance, because even though we sent him to school with a roadside binder, he has totally had light-up sneakers–two pairs, actually, since he needed indoor and outdoor sneakers and they had a deal on at the store. I’ve never had any, though…yet… 🙂


    • Haha I love this comment… keep me posted on those adult blinky shoes lol! Your effort is impressive! I’m surprised the teacher asked for resealable bags… do you have any idea what for? As a teacher, I’m wondering if they are absolutely necessary, or perhaps a non-plastic alternative is available? Guess you’ll have to wait and see. Happy back-to-school!


      • If I find out, I will let you know! I think everyone just finds them convenient to stash things in, but I’m sure there are many alternatives. At least this year the teacher isn’t insisting on “Twistables” coloured pencils encased in plastic. Happy back-to-school to you, too!


      • Insisting on twistables?! Oh boy. Those must be more expensive than just a classic pencil crayon, no? I do like your idea of including the child in the purchasing of special wants. It is very important for children to learn financial literacy!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s