As a kid, I loved the ritual of back-to-school shopping with my mom. We’d hit the stores with a shopping list in hand. I’d carefully pick out a new backpack and pencil case, and all the pens, notebooks, and binders I would need for the year. Selecting gear was as much a form of self-expression as preparing for an upcoming year of classes.
But all that consumerism has a major environmental footprint. American households are expected to spend $745 million over the next few weeks, buying the clothes, sneakers, and school supplies for the new year. Most of these products aren’t particularly durable or well-made. Parents often don’t want to invest in products that their children will quickly outgrow or that’ll get dirty. As a result, many back-to-school products—from waterproof backpacks to sneakers to lunch box sporks—are made from plastic, which is both cheap and easy to clean. And at the end of their life span, the products wind up in landfills or the ocean, where they don’t decompose and instead pollute our planet for centuries to come.
But the good news is that many brands are working hard to create more sustainable alternatives to the products your kids use every day. We’ve scoured the market to find back-to-school gear that’s either made of natural, biodegradable materials or recycled plastic (less desirable because it is not biodegradable, but still better than single-use plastic). And we’ve road-tested them to make sure they live up to kids’ expectations and could withstand hardcore use. These are easy swaps for kids of all ages, from the preschool set all the way to high schooler.
A pen with refills
When your kid starts writing, your house will slowly be overtaken with plastic pens that are often so cheap, you won’t mind when they run out of ink or disappear. But there was a time not that long ago when pens were durable, cherished products that people kept for life. We could easily go back to that way of thinking. Baron Fig, a stationary brand, has developed a rollerball pen that is made from aluminum and can easily be refilled with a soy ink cartridge, which is more sustainable because it is renewable, biodegradable, and less toxic than common alternatives. The pen also writes smoothly and comfortably, earning it several accolades for being the best pen on the market. Just make sure your kid doesn’t lose it. It’s not cheap. $55 for rollerball, $12 for three refills
A backpack, lunch bags, and pencil cases made from recycled plastic
Most kids’ backpacks on the market are made from synthetic materials like nylon. There’s a reason for it: These materials are waterproof, stain-resistant, and can be tossed in the washing machine (important because you know your kid will leave a half-eaten sandwich or apple in her backpack for weeks at some point in the future). A more sustainable alternative to a regular plastic backpack is something that uses recycled plastic. This material is not ideal because it still ends up in a landfill at the end of its life, since there aren’t currently many good systems for recycling plastic fabrics—but it’s better for the planet than virgin plastic because it uses up plastic that already exists. A startup called Parkland has come up with a line of backpacks, pencil cases, and lunch bags that are made from recycled water bottles. Importantly, the brand has fun, kid-friendly patterns like dinosaurs, planets, and polka dots. Backpacks start at $29.99, lunch bags start at $19.99, and pencil cases cost $9.99.
If you have school-age kids, your medicine cabinet is full of bandages to deal with the many scratches and scrapes that happen throughout the day. (There’s a good chance they are covered in images of Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse, as well.) But adhesive bandages are often made of thin strips of plastic or woven fabric with plastic-based adhesives on the back. All of this adds up, when you think about how many you go through every year. Australian company Patch has come up with a line of bandages that are made from bamboo fiber, which is entirely compostable, and are free of plastics, latex, and silicon. They are tailored for different wounds, from minor abrasions to sports injuries. There’s even a panda pattern that kids will love. They’re available from CVS and online retailers like Grove Collaborative for $6.99 for a pack of 25. $6.99 for a 25-pack
Portable spoons and forks
Your kids will need portable silverware to eat their lunch at school. Many schools supply kids with single-use plastic cutlery because it is both cheap and convenient. It’s also incredibly wasteful: More than 100 million pieces of plastic utensils are used every single day, and they can each take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Enter Knork, which has just launched biodegradable cutlery made from bamboo fibers and sugar cane starch that will disintegrate within two years of disposal. It is designed to be reusable and can be washed 400 times in the dishwasher, which means a single set will last you the entire school year. But because it is relatively inexpensive, you won’t worry when your kid inevitably forgets to bring it home. The company has also developed a carrying case made from the same material, which makes it easier to store dirty cutlery. Then, at home, you can stick the entire thing in the dishwasher. $8.99 for case and $6.99 for cutlery set
A fun, safe metal straw
Single-use plastic straws are convenient and abundant at school cafeterias. But they’re also terrible for the environment: Americans throw away an estimated 500 million straws every single day. They often fall through the cracks of our waste management system and end up in oceans where sea animals choke on them. There’s been a growing awareness about their impact on the environment, which has led many cities and companies to ban them. As a result, many brands have been working on designing reusable alternatives. But not all alternatives are created equal. For one thing, hard straws can hurt your child’s mouth. It’s also easy for kids to forget or lose a straw. Final Straw has a good solution. It’s a metal straw that has a soft silicone tip for safe drinking and the whole thing can be put in the dishwasher. (Silicone is not biodegradable, so we should rely on it sparingly, but in this context, it makes the straw far more attractive to parents than plastic.) The straws can be collapsed into a small carrying case, which can be attached to a key ring or backpack. And importantly, they come in fun colors, which kids tend to love. My 4-year-old tester was a big fan of the rainbow straw. $24.50
A durable lunch container
Many lunch boxes are plastic or have plastic accessories, like ice packs. S’well, which is known for its water bottles, will launch a line of boxes and containers called S’nack by S’well and S’well Eats on August 15. They are made from stainless steel, but are carefully designed to keep food hot or cold till lunch time comes around. And they have an exterior copper wall that prevents the containers from sweating and creating condensation in your kid’s bag. Bowls start at $40, and snack boxes start at $19.99.
A size-appropriate refillable bottle
You want your kid to stay hydrated, but many drinking bottles designed for children are made from plastic. These bottles are designed to be used for a long time, but when they reach the end of their life, they will likely end up in a landfill. It’s better to go with a metal bottle, which will eventually decompose and also has the additional benefit of being able to regulate temperature. I recommend the Corkcicle, which is not actually a kids’ brand but happens to create ergonomically designed bottles that are great for children. The bottles have flat, rather than round sides, which makes them easier for kids to grip. And they have a silicone base so they stay put on a surface. And they also keep drinks cold for 25 hours, and warm for 12 hours. The brand has a large number of sizes and colors. The 9-ounce bottle is great for the toddler set and you can buy a straw cap for $9.95 if your kid finds it hard to drink directly from the bottle. When they’re older, they can graduate to the 16-ounce bottle. Canteens start at $19.99.
Durable, sustainable sneakers
Of course your kids want new shoes for a new school year (and probably need them, given how quickly they grow). But most sneakers—for both adults and children—are made from plastic. So the best we can do is find shoes that contain recycled plastic. Rothy’s offers some options that are both sustainable and durable. The brand creates sneakers whose uppers are knit from fibers made from recycled water bottles. And since each shoe is 3D knited, there is little fabric wasted in the process. They are also well-designed for kids. They are hardy and machine washable, so they are likely to be in great shape long after your kid has outgrown them. (You can pass them on to a friend.) Importantly, the sneakers come in colors and patterns that kids love. Our tester was partial to the llama pattern, which she has requested for the new school year. $55
Choose cotton, when you can
A lot of children’s clothes are made from synthetic fibers like polyester, which is cheaper than organic fibers. And since kids outgrow their clothes so quickly, many parents don’t want to invest in expensive items. But this means heaps of clothes quickly end up in landfills, since we don’t currently have good fabric recycling centers. When you can, opt for materials like cotton, bamboo, linen, or wool. Brands like Primary (with T-shirts starting at $6.50) and Maisonette Essentials (with dresses starting at $24) use as little plastic as possible in their garments.
There are some downsides to using cotton as well: It is a renewable fiber that biodegrades, but it relies on a lot of water to produce and some suppliers use toxic chemicals to produce it. But if you buy from brands that are careful about where they source their cotton, it can be a better alternative than polyester. Primary, for instance, uses only Oeko Tex-certified cotton, which means it adheres to strict guidelines about chemical use.
But given the trade-offs of using all of these materials, the most sustainable thing you can do is to buy fewer clothes for your kids. The brands I’ve suggested above design clothes to be classic and durable, so in theory you wouldn’t need to buy as many. The vast majority of these garments come in solid colors and are basic enough to outlast the current trends. When you’re done, pass them on to other kids, to maximize their life span.