20+ Tips to Make Going Back to School and College Greener & More Sustainable


Whether it’s shopping for back to school supplies or moving into a college dorm room, explore ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle more where you live, work, play, and learn. With fall quickly approaching, it’s time for students to return to class, whatever that may look like, school supplies are likely at the top of your shopping list. Whether instruction is resuming remotely or in-person, you can choose sustainable choices that help protect the planet and support stronger, healthier communities. Whether it’s the first day of pre-school or senior year of college, here’s what to keep in mind if going green and sustainability is on your back to school list:

Shopping for Back to School Supplies

Sustainability starts at the cart™ [or online shopping cart]. Consider the following when shopping for school supplies:

  • Before browsing webpages, apps, and isles filled with school supplies, complete an inventory of what you already have, obtain a list from your children’s school and teachers, and ask yourself if and how it’s going to be used.
  • Seek items that are made from recycled materials and are durable to last the school year and beyond and when looking for paper or notebooks, look for post-consumer recycled content. Post-recycled material and/or eco-friendly supplies are generally marked with a special tag or on the packaging. Lunch boxes, pencil holders, backpacks, and even clothing can be made from recycled water and soda bottles, helping to drive a more circular economy verses one where items are made to waste.
  • Packing a lunch can lead to less wastefulness at school, particularly when packed items are reused, recycled, and composted. If you and/or your children pack a school lunch, be sure to include reusable utensils, containers, and even straws. Leftovers may be composted at home or in participating communities while some non-reusable items such as bottles and cans can be recycled.
  • Use recycled paper. And, before discarding paper (in the recycling), consider using it for craft or other school projects.

Returning to Campus/College Move-in

Whether you or your children are incoming first-year students or returning to campus this fall, pursuing a greener move-in experience is possible if you consider:

  • Coordinate needs with future roommates/suitemates and only bringing what you need. It may be possible to coordinate large purchases such as furniture and appliances. When you do purchase appliances, look for Energy Star-rated refrigerators and microwaves that utilize less electricity.
  • Add items made from recycled and eco-friendly materials to your shopping list.
  • Ensure dorm rooms and suites have a recycling container and students understand when, where, and how to recycle items. Remember, just because it’s recyclable at home doesn’t mean it’s recyclable on campus and vice versa. Universities may also require residents to separate recyclables.
  • Switch incandescent lightbulbs for LED. These use far less electricity than incandescent bulbs.
  • Pack reusable plates, napkins, and cutlery.
  • Bring real, live plants that can cleanse the air verses plastic ones that will one day need to be trashed.
  • New research confirms the recyclability of pizza boxes in some programs. Check locally to see if pizza boxes can be recycled in university communities.
  • Don’t forget reusable shopping bags for groceries and other items.

Getting Your Supplies Home

Whether you’re shopping online or venturing to the store, keep these tips in mind to be sustainable with your shopping bags, shipping boxes, and packaging:

  • Remember when shopping for back-to-school supplies to take your reusable shopping bags. Plastic retail bags are not recyclable in your curbside carts and should be returned to participating drop-off locations.
  • If you purchase school supplies online, be sure to flatten and recycle your shipping boxes.
  • Check locally and follow directions on packaging before discarding.

Making It a Greener Commute

If your local schools are meeting in-person, start and end a greener day by considering:

  • A walking school bus may be a healthy and COVID-safe carpool alternative for those who live close to schools.
  • Turn off your car when waiting in long pick-up lines.
  • Ride your bike to school or work.

Donating to School Supply Drives

Consider donating money verses supplies to school supply drives, especially through cash-pay apps. This can ensure an appropriate inventory of supplies and reduce the potential for transmission of COVID-19.

Joining in the Fight Against COVID-19

Your recycling helps in the fight against COVID-19. Recycling your bottles, cans, cardboard, and paper can create new shipping boxes, plastic products, and even toilet paper. When it comes to recycling during the pandemic:

  • Masks, wipes, and gloves are not recyclable. Please place these in bagged trash.
  • When possible, please consider using a reusable/washable face covering.
  • Remember to place all recycling in the cart. To ensure the safety of collectors, place loose, unbagged recyclables inside the cart.
  • Hand sanitizer and soap bottles are recyclable; however, not all containers’ pumps are recyclable. Before placing in your recycling bin, check to ensure that pumps contain no metal. Any pump containing metal should be placed in the trash. The empty and dry bottle can be recycled separately.

Helping Students, Schools, and Communities to Recycle More, Better

Recycling reduces the need for new, raw materials, protects our planet, helps abate climate change, and creates stronger, healthier communities. Education can help improve and expand local recycling initiatives. Here’s how you can help educate, engage, and empower your friends, neighbors, family, and students to recycle more, better:

  • Encourage your children’s school to pursue and promote recycling. Our DIY Signs for Recycling can improve recycling where you live, work, play, and learn.
  • Twin the bin. Whether it’s your kitchen, office, laundry, or children’s play or bedroom, place a recycling container beside the trash can to make it easier to recycle.

When it comes to back to school sustainability, your actions, your voice, and your choices make a difference in the health of your family, community, and planet. Explore other ways to create a more circular, less wasteful economy, one supported by the other three “Rs” reduce, reuse, and recycle by visiting communitiesforrecycling.org.

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