Whether your children are headed back to school full time, part time, or not at all, there are some unique challenges you may be facing this year as a parent. Each school, and school division, has their own specific plans for what back-to-school is going to look like, and we don’t know how those plans may evolve over time. Even through all this uncertainty and change, there are still lots of actions parents can take to reduce the environmental impact of back-to-school. We’ve compiled a list of a few ideas on how to cope with back to school while producing as little waste as possible. Please make sure to check in with your division and school before diving in, however, as you may have specific requirements to meet that are not accounted for here.

Getting to school

School divisions’ transportation looks a lot different this year. Due to physical distancing, bus capacity is dramatically reduced, and families need to find ways to get kids to school on their own. Here are some ways to make the trip to school a success! 

  • Create a socially-distanced walking school bus – get a few families together who can walk together, with a rotating parent supervisor schedule. It gives you a break sometimes, and gives the kids a chance to spend time with friends 
  • Map a route – map a route for walking or biking to school. Practice the route together a few times on a weekend or evening. Check out our mapping activity to help you and your kid find a safe route (it works for biking and walking)! 
  • Buddy system – encourage your kids to walk, bike, rollerblade or scooter with a buddy, or with a friend or family member
  • Walk-a-block – if you need to drive, try dropping your kid off a block away from the front of the school. This gives your child a chance to have some independence, and helps to reduce traffic congestion. 

Whether you’ve been walking and biking to school forever, or are trying to break the car habit, we have lots of resources for you. Check out the Active and Safe Routes to School Program

Active school travel also increases mental and physical health, can help with concentration in the classroom, and reduces your environmental impact – that’s a win-win-win whether you do it once a week, one month out of the year, or for the entire school year.

School Lunches

The current approach seems to be that if students are receiving lunch from school (for example, a lunch program or cafeteria), it will be pre-packaged in single-use disposable containers. However, students appear to be allowed to bring their own lunches in their own containers. If your school is allowing reusable containers, this is a huge way to reduce waste! Some considerations:

  • Microwaves are unlikely to be an option this year. If you want to bring warm foods, preheat them and store in a thermal container!
  • Make sure your children are able to open their own containers. Screw-tops, for example, can be tricky for small hands or students with disabilities. Test out whatever lunch kit you end up with to be sure it can be used independently.
  • Stuck with disposables? We’ve got a few suggestions for lower-impact options below!
  • Make sure you choose something easily washable, for your own sanity!
  • Water fountains in most school divisions are unavailable, so check in with your school whether water bottle refills will be an option. If not, make sure to pack more than one, or send a large enough water bottle to last all day!

Here’s a few ideas for how to pack a low-waste lunch:

  • Wrap dry items in beeswax wraps. Many stores carry these now, including Generation Green, The Nature Shop at FortWhyte, Jardins-St-Leons, Crampton’s Market, Humboldt’s Legacy, The Refill Market and many more. Your grocery store or supermarket may even stock them now!
  • Use what you have! If you have food storage containers at home already, and your child can open them easily, put these in a reusable bag you can wipe down (schools may require a plastic or other hard-sided container that can more easily be sanitized).
  • Try a bento-style box. These are especially good for younger children, as they’re appealing and help you to portion food appropriately. These can be found everywhere these days, from Winners and Staples to Generation Green and Humboldt’s Legacy. Decide whether you need a leak-proof box or if you’ll only be adding dry goods.
  • For hot foods, a thermal container is handy. MEC carries great quality thermoses, but you can also find them in most stores selling school supplies these days.
  • Consider leaving out single-use wrapped items, especially for younger children. Juice box straws, yogurt tubes, granola bars, and similar products can prove tricky to open, requiring assistance from teachers. This leads to less distancing  and more touching of items!
  • Need straws? Consider silicone straws for younger kids, as glass breaks easily and stainless steel concerns some parents and teachers for its potential to jab students. Plus silicone comes in lots of fun colours!
  • Water bottles: occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists seem to mostly be recommending open-cup or straw-style bottles (and suggesting we avoid the style of bottle where you bite the straw to suck). We encourage you to do your research, and think the best water bottle is one kids will use! (and is leak-proof). Klean Kanteen stainless steel bottles come with a lifetime warranty, which may appeal to those of you with kids who are particularly…shall we say, “creative”? 
  • If your child can use utensils well, include some reusable ones. Thrift stores often have good quality utensils for very cheap, and you don’t have to worry about your good ones getting lost. Or if you prefer something lighter, bamboo is a great alternative. Titanium sporks may appeal to the goofier kids!
  • Don’t forget a freshly washed cloth napkin – and some hand sanitizer too. Cloth napkins can simply be rags or cut-up old sheets or blankets. Make sure you have enough so they can go in the wash between uses!

Gotta go disposable? Try something recycled and recyclable like these If You Care paper sandwich bags, instead of non-recyclable filmy plastic zipper bags!

Masks

The primary consideration for mask wearing should be a mask your child can and will wear, and how well it fits. With masks being mandatory for some ages and scenarios, you’ll want to have some on hand! Here’s a few options:

  • Make your own! Winnipeg Sews offers independently-made patterns for them. Just make sure you use a tightly-woven fabric with at least two layers or they won’t be effective. 
  • Buy them locally-made: there’s a lot of small makers who make masks. A few we know of who make masks for smaller faces include EMK, Anne Mulaire, Colibri (also a great source for snack bags!), Itty Bitty Baby Boutique, The Cutting Edge (a social enterprise!). Etsy and Facebook Marketplace are two other excellent sources to search for locally-made masks for kids (and their parents!).

Don’t have the ability to sew and can’t afford locally made? Mutual Aid Society is offering free masks to parents who cannot afford a mask at this time for their children. Please contact them through their Facebook group to get one. Remember, reusable still trumps disposable for the environment, no matter where you get it from!

School Supplies

Schools often provide very specific lists of supplies you need to purchase. Make sure you check in with a teacher if you are hoping to deviate from the supply list. That said, students in older grades (like highschool) or those who have a generic item on the supply list like “pocket folders” will have some leeway. Here’s a few options that may fit your needs – and hey, if you’re buying crayons, consider getting a pack that offers many shades of “flesh” tones!

  • Recycled notebooks. You may be surprised what you can find at standard school-supply stores like Staples. Chapters-Indigo carries Canadian-made EcoJot brand made from recycled paper, you can order tree-free Eco Paper reams and notebooks online at http://www.ecopaper.com/journals/journals-html.html. For some more options check out TreeHugger’s article
  • Staples carries a number of recycled-paper products like lined paper, copy paper, paper portfolios and pocket folders, exercise books, spiral-bound notebooks, paper pads, etc. These reduce the number of new trees needed to produce school supplies! These are widely available in many retail outlets.
  • Need highlighters? Highlighter pencils produce a lot less waste than highlighter pens!

Sanitzer

Hand sanitizer is a new fact of life. Your child will probably have access to it at school, but for those times they need their own, try a refillable option. In Winnipeg, you can get scented or unscented hand sanitizer at Little Treehugger soap co, including large refill bottles. The Refill Market also carries hand sanitizer refills available in returnable jars so you can put it in your own container.

Back-to-school Clothes

Not everything has changed! Kids still grow out of clothes and want or need new ones for the new year. Textile production is rife with environmental and social challenges (check out Fashion Revolution Winnipeg to learn more), but it’s possible to mitigate those. Second hand is always the lowest-impact option. Try thrift stores (small one-offs can have the best deals often), or reselling platforms and stores like Once Upon A Child, Plato’s Closet (for older students/larger sizes), PoshMark, Facebook Marketplace. There are also a number of smaller, online-based consignment stores such as ChildCycle Consignment and Sweet Pea Threads. Friends and family may have hand-me-downs too. Can’t find what you need second hand, and have some budget left? Try seeking a few quality pieces from more ethical clothing companies. Locally, EMK makes a children’s line, and The Nest in Winnipeg carries some smaller sizes of more sustainably-made clothing items for kids. Know more great sources? Share with us in the comments!

If you have a younger kid, you may need to send a change of clothes to school, as well as a wet bag to put them in (especially if bathroom accidents are a possibility). Colibri and AMP Diapers both stock excellent locally-made wet bags that can be used for storing swimsuits, dirty clothing, and more.

Electronics

Electronics are an increasing need in schools these days, whether you’re learning in schools or at home. Consider purchasing refurbished and used items when you can, and be sure to properly recycle any no longer usable devices! Easy electronics recycling is available across Manitoba – find your nearest dropoff point here (places like Staples, Best Buy, and Winnipeg’s 4R depots all accept used electronics for appropriate recycling). Mother Earth Recycling in Winnipeg also accepts electronics.

Recycle!

Did you know many school supplies are recyclable? Notebooks can be taken apart and the paper put in your blue bin. Electronics, as mentioned above, are recycled through the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA). Batteries (present in all too many kid items) can be recycled for free through Call2Recycle. Pens, pencils, crayons, etc. can be dropped off at the recycling stations at Staples locations, as can lightbulbs, printer cartridges, and more. Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, Staples has paused their collection programs, and is asking customers to hold onto their recyclables until they are able to accept these items again. 

 

Remember: do what you can, not what you can’t. Every action makes a positive difference!

 

*This is not a sponsored article, and we do not specifically endorse any store or product. Please do sufficient research to determine that products will meet your needs.