Posted on / by Emily / in Blog

Save Money, Reduce Waste: the Sustainable Back-to-School Guide

It’s that time of year again, the time of year when parents excitedly begin prepping their children for the transition back to publicly funded daycare (otherwise known as school 😜). Part of this preparation involves equipping kids with the tools and items they need for a successful year – new clothes, notebooks, pencils, lunch kits, backpacks, etc.

While there are a certain number of items kids really do need, our culture has elevated the relatively mundane process of sending children to school into a shopping frenzy on par with other consumer holidays. In fact, recent polls suggest that some parents spend more on back-to-school shopping than they do on holiday gift shopping in December.

This means that not only are we maxing out our credit cards on plastic binders and fresh fall looks, we’re contributing to the wastefulness associated with mass individual consumption of goods. Couple this with food packaged in non-recyclable materials and the excessive plastic packaging that school supplies are stuck in, and the education of our young people suddenly becomes a pretty wasteful process.

Since the 1950s, some 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, and to date, only 9% of that has been recycled. – Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff

What’s an environmentally-minded parent to do?! Here are a few practical tips to make the back-to-school process a little lighter on the planet (and your wallet).


1) Assess What You Need, Use What You Have

Chances are, you’ve still got a good number of items floating around from the previous school year in good working order. Take inventory of what you already have around the house and make a list of the things you still need – and then stick to that list. Make it part of your end-of-school-year routine to keep all school supplies in one place to reduce the amount of time spent looking for rogue markers or tricky calculators.

This seems like pretty basic advice but if you skip this step, the chance of acquiring repeat items is higher.


2) Organize a Community Swap

Chances are, there are parents in your neighbourhood who have a lot of gently used clothing, backpacks, shoes and school supplies their kids have outgrown or grown tired of. Rather than going to a busy mall and purchasing all these things new, why not host a community swap to recirculate the stuff that already exists in your community? The more people who attend the swap, the better the selection will be and the easier it becomes for people to find what they need. Imagine if back-to-school swaps became as much of a cultural phenomenon as back-to-school shopping?!

Consumers must recognize that the most sustainable item is the one that already exists. – 2018 State of Reuse Report

It is best to partner with a local community organization or hub that can provide space and help spread the word about the swap. For example, we ran a successful Kids Stuff Swap at Withrow Park Farmers’ Market this past weekend. Imagine if every school got involved in the swapping movement and began hosting a large back-to-school swap in the gym each August for parents to attend?  The more we participate and push for events like these, the more likely back-to-school swapping will become an engrained cultural behaviour.

We hold several community swaps a year. To get notified about upcoming swaps, sign up for our monthly community newsletter.


3) Shop at Thrift Stores & Use Trading Apps

Thrift shopping ain’t what it used to be – it’s BETTER. Because consumer culture has exploded over the last 20 or so years, we are drowning in stuff and our thrift stores are the physical evidence of that. In Toronto we have some exceptional second-hand children’s stores that reveal another excellent way to get what you need for back-to-school without shopping new. Find children’s clothing, shoes, accessories and backpacks at:

Maybe you found all the clothing and shoes you needed by shopping thrift, but weren’t able to find an appropriate backpack, for example. For more specific searches, try out apps like Freecycle and Bunz Trading Zone where you can input search terms and find items in your community that people have available for free or for trade.


4) Learn the ABCs of Packing a Plastic-Free Lunch

Ditching packaging in your kid’s lunch requires a little bit of thought, finding the right tools to do the job and knowing where to shop to avoid over-packaged products. Let’s take a little lesson in the zero waste lifestyle before sending your little ones to school:

A) Swap out Plastic Wrap & Ziplock Bags for Beeswax Wrap

Who actually likes dealing with plastic wrap?! No one, and definitely not the planet. If you haven’t already made the switch, beeswax wraps are your new best friends. They can be used for wrapping just about anything – sandwiches, veggie sticks, fruits. They are easy to use and actually pretty easy to make at home yourself (check out two different DIY instructions here and here. You can use upcycled fabrics and leftover beeswax drippings from beeswax candles). Not up to the DIY challenge? Toronto’s Bare Market has them available at their pop-up markets around the city.

B) Invest in a Zero Waste Lunch Kit 

Making a package-free lunch starts with the right tools – good quality stainless steel containers, a mini container for dips, a cutlery set, reusable water bottle, etc. Putting together a zero waste lunch kit for kids is very similar to the process of putting one together for adults.

If you’ve already got these items, just use what you have! But if you’re in the market for anything, Bare Market has everything you need – including the stainless steel containers, cutlery sets and beeswax wraps. Bare Market will be Toronto’s first one-stop, package-free shop and has been running pop-up shops around the city this summer. They will be at the Toronto Tool Library and Sharing Depot’s 830 St Clair West location on Thursday, August 30 for one of these pop-up shops. Stop by, say hi and get wasteless!

C) Locate bulk stores that have reusable container programs

Here comes the trickier part – if you want to avoid the packaging that typically comes on pre-bought food, it means lunches have to be made from scratch using package-free ingredients.

Don’t know where to find bulk stores that allow you to bring your own containers? There’s an app for that! Use the Bulk Locator App to find the package-free shops nearest you and shop for ingredients using your own containers and bags. Karma Coop Toronto,  Anarres Natural HealthNuthouseSweet Potato Toronto and Strictly Bulk are all good options. Bulk Barn has also recently launched a reusable container program.

If you’re looking for bread for sandwiches, check out local bakeries and bring along a bread bag (the bread loaf can then be stored in a large beeswax wrap or bread box to avoid it going stale). If you use cold cut meats, you can bring your own container to the deli counter in grocery stores or to specialty meat shops to skip the plastic wrap/plastic bags they put put those in.

For some easy-to-prep zero waste lunch recipe ideas, check out Everyday Eco Living and Zero Waste Chef.


5) Get Broken Items Repaired

Backpack with a broken zipper? Ripped jeans? Binder with a broken spine? Rather than tossing these items and buying new, take them to a Repair Cafe or to Clothing Repairathon Toronto.

Repair Café Toronto holds pop-up repair events all around the city. We also host them at our 830 St Clair West location every Sunday from 12-4pm. Bring your broken items – everything from small appliances, jewelry, textiles, books, bicycles, etc – and the amazing volunteers will help you fix them.

Clothing Repairathon is similar to the Repair Café, but focuses just on textiles. They will be at Withrow Park Farmers’ Market on September 15 from 9am-1pm. Check their website or Facebook group for other upcoming events.


6) Find Sustainable Alternatives

Bic has sold over 100 billion disposable pens since 1950. If all those pens were lined up end to end, they could circle the Earth 350 times. – JetPens

While finding and using what already exists in circulation is the most sustainable option, sometimes you can’t avoid buying new. When purchasing an item new, try to locate eco-friendly or sustainable alternatives.

  • Pencils and Pencil Crayons: Bare Market carries a brand of pencils and coloured pencils made from recycled paper and non-toxic graphite. They will be at theToronto Tool Library and Sharing Depot’s 830 St Clair West location on Thursday, August 30.
  • Highlighters: the Pilot Wytebord highlighter is made using 56% recycled plastic and is refillable using bottled ink. The Zebra Optex 1 EZ Highlighters are made of 98% recycled plastic, but use a cartridge system for refills. Or check out these highlighter pencils from Stubby Pencil Studio.
  • Pens: look for pens that are made from biodegradable materials, such as the DBA 98 Penwhich is 98% biodegradable. There are also many pens out there made from recycled plastic (look for the pens that are refillable on that list, such as the Pilot Kakuno Fountain Pen or the Pilot Hi-Tecpoint).
  • Look for products that don’t include plastic – such as opting for a stainless steel ruler rather than a plastic one.
  • Notebooks: the Decompossion Notebooks are made in the USA using 100% recycled paper, soy ink and bio-gas and can be recycled when you’re finished with them.
  • Backpacks and Lunch Bags: if you’re in the market for a new backpack or lunch bag, look for makers who are making them using upcycled fabric. A quick search on Etsy led me to SANDbags, who make backpacks out of repurposed clothing, curtains, linens and rescued fabrics (super into this rock star backpack made from a curtain and this aztec print backpack made from rescued fabric). They also make reusable snack bags out of upcycled materials. Similarly, SecondBirthday makes backpacks using upcycled denim. FatDragonfly makes lunch bags out of recycled organic cotton.

These are just some examples, the point being that with a little bit of research (even into your own local maker community) it’s very likely you can find a more sustainable version of the mass produced, highly unsustainable item you almost bought at a commercial retailer. Looking for reusable products that use upcycled materials is the priority.

JustEco pencils and coloured pencils will be available at Bare Market’s pop-up shop with us this Thursday, August 30.


7) Consider Investing in a Zero Waste Box Program

TerraCycle is an eco-friendly recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling typically non-recyclable waste. –

Recycling might not be the solution to our culture’s waste woes, but it is one way to reuse materials that are already in circulation. And it isn’t so much that most materials can’t be recycled – it’s that most materials can’t be recycled by our local recycling facilities.

Get your community involved in recycling materials you would normally be chucking in the garbage by going in on a Terracycle Zero Waste Box together. For instance, a group of parents could get their children’s classroom a Zero Waste Box for snack wrappers (and for the month of August, this box is 20% off with the code AUGUSTBOX20) or try an Office Supplies Box for the whole school. You can also check in with them to see if your school qualifies for one of their Free Recycling Programs, sponsored by brands, retailers and manufacturers around the world. You can reach out to them about this here.

This is a great way to not only recycle materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, but also to get more people thinking about waste and our relationship to the Earth’s resources a little more carefully.


8) Donate or Properly Recycle Used Items

If you aren’t distributing your child’s used school items at a community swap, ensure you recycle or donate your items responsibly, to the best of your ability.

  • Staples has partnered with Terracycle Canada to implement a writing instruments recycling program available across 300 locations. Bring your used up pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, etc to a location near you to be recycled.
  • Get your school involved in ColorCycle, Crayola’s North America wide marker recycling program. This program is easy to participate in: put all of the dried up markers in a box and Crayola will pay for the shipping. They then separate the markers, melt them down and use the recycled product to make new markers.
  • ‘The Pen Guy’ accepts pens, markers, crayons, highlighters, etc and uses them for upcycled art projects.
  • There are charities who distribute back-to-school items to children in need, such as the Caring and Sharing Exchange in Ottawa.
  • Bring items that are gently used to the Really, Really Free Market which takes place on the first Saturday of every month.
  • List items on the Freecycle app for others in your community who need them.
  • Get your neighbourhood involved in Toronto’s Second Hand Sunday event, which is a city-wide event where people leave their gently used items on the curb for others to take (takes place on Sunday, September 30). Contact them to learn how to bring it to your community!


Nothing is going to be perfect and don’t stress if you don’t have the time or resources to invest in all of these tips. The zero waste lifestyle is one that can be adopted over time and doing any of these things helps to make the world a more sustainable place.

Do you have any wasteless back-to-school tips? Let us know on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).



I’m @itsahashtaglife, a social media manager, storyteller and blogger for non-profits and charities in Toronto. I take the tools and techniques of traditional digital media marketing and apply them to organizations working hard to shift our world into a new story – one that is more sustainable and supportive of people and the planet.




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