Back to school doesn’t have to cost the earth


REUSE WISE Redecorating older items like lunch boxes and schoolbags can be enough to keep smiles on faces.

Green Living
McKinley Neal

It seems impossible, but soon schools will reopen, and we might all be in a panic to buy the gear we’d forgotten about, when books were nearly thrown out the window during lockdown home-schooling, and all the pencils rolled under the couch.
The owner of another Irish business that we greatly admire,, Ireland’s leading supplier of eco-friendly toys and crafts, recently shared her best advice on back to school shopping: Buy nothing new.
Now, that may sound counterintuitive when you get a list of supplies from the school, or a wish list from your teenager for something they are certain will make them more productive, but we have to recognise that we’ve been conditioned to think all these items have to be brand new in packaging to tick the boxes. And there are big savings to be made, both for the environment and your pocket.
The biggest challenge might be managing expectations your child has about having new items, so the best place to start is by having a conversation about whether they already have a functional lunch box, school bag and stationary from last year that can be reused. Many kids now understand the impact that purchasing new items can have on both the environment and the family budget—they are much more clued in than we give them credit for! Customising items by adding some decoration may be interesting enough to bring them around to the idea of choosing to reuse.  
Older siblings, cousins or friends might be a great source of school books, uniforms and sports gear, as are local parents’ groups. I have a shortlist of friends with children just a couple of years older than my own that I start by asking if we need something specific, and if they don’t have the goods they can often suggest someone who might.
For anything you can’t find new, try to find an eco-friendly alternative. Coloured pencils and sharpeners last far longer than markers that dry out and cannot be recycled, and there are biros with ink cartridge refills (instead of buying a pack of eight and throwing them all away when the ink runs out). Notebooks made from recycled paper, or at least FSC-certified new paper, and ideally with a cardboard cover, can be fully recycled at end of life.
Reusable items to replace disposable ones are key, so if your child doesn’t yet have a durable water bottle and lunch box, consider investing in stainless steel or silicone options that will survive a thousand dings. Cling film can be replaced by beeswax wraps or washable snack bags, and reusable cutlery and a handkerchief will make it a real meal.
Think also about the food that goes into lunches, and try to buy whole foods and items in larger quantities instead of purchasing individually wrapped foods. Have your child help you plan the weekly lunch menu, and spend some time on the weekend or in the evening preparing food that will meet the school’s criteria and avoid waste as much as possible.
All the best for the return to school, and remember, it doesn’t have to cost the earth.

McKinley Neal co-runs PAX Whole Foods & Eco Goods, a minimal-waste shop in Westport offering bulk organic foods, reusable goods, household products, eco-friendly personal care items and gifts.