Getting your kids ready for the new school year can be a doozy. Every time a new school year rolls around, kids are in need of new supplies – from pencils to notebooks to folders…oh my! On top of worrying about all these supplies, who has time to think about the impact that back-to-school has on the planet?! Should they take a bagged lunch with them? What’s the best way to get to school? We’re giving you one less thing to worry about because we have answers to all of your new school-year questions, keeping the planet in mind.
Here are our most helpful hints!
#1 Walk or bike first, then bus, then carpool, then drive individually
#2 Bring lunch in a reusable container
#3 Opt for PEFC-certified pencils and reusable water bottles
(FYI - PEFC stands for Programme for the Endorsement of Forest)
#1 Walk or bike first, then bus, then carpool, then drive individually to school
When it comes to getting to school, we should first note that each district around the country may have drastically different options available. Some kids might live within walking distance, while others have a further commute that requires getting in a vehicle. In the past 40 years, we’ve seen an increase from 15% to nearly 50% of kids being driven to school in a private vehicle. This is partially due to how far children are living from school and an increase in reliance on private vehicles.
So…what to do when it comes to getting your munchkin on their way? If you live within walking or biking distance, opt for the two-wheel or two-legged option. Use this handy dandy calculator to see how biking or walking to your destination will impact the amount of fuel used…and its associated reduction in carbon emissions. For example, biking two miles back and forth to school 174 times (so, a whole school year) will save 68.6 gallons of fuel and 1,364.9 pounds of CO2e emissions. This amount of fuel is equivalent to filling up an average-sized car almost six times!
Let’s say you live a bit further, or maybe the terrain isn’t safe for your little one to walk or bike. It’s likely that your options are public transit (including that mighty yellow school bus!), carpooling, or taking them in your private vehicle. It’s important to note that estimating transportation energy consumption is very complex – there are so many factors to consider, not to mention the cost of travel, parking options, toll rates, convenience, type of vehicle, and even the friendliness of carpool partners. For the purpose of our estimations, we’re intentionally generalizing across these factors, including vehicle types and the distance to school. (P.s. shoot us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want us to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations for your area.)
The option with the smallest negative impact on the environment is taking the bus. Even a diesel-powered bus, with as few as seven passengers, offers a fuel economy that is six times greater than the average car. A single individual that swaps their individual commute by car to public transit can result in a 10% reduction in all GHG emissions produced by a two-person, two-car household. In fact, taking public transit is more impactful in reducing personal annual carbon emissions than adjusting the thermostat in your house or replacing inefficient lightbulbs or refrigerators.
But, what about carpooling? Carpooling (also apparently called “slugging”... which we love) is one of the best strategies for reducing traffic (and hence pollution) only second to a full-on driving ban in its potential for reducing energy use. Car sharing results in financial savings and reduced CO2e emissions due to fewer vehicles on the road. Plus, who doesn’t have memories of school bus friends and carpool jokes?
#2 Bring lunch in a reusable container
School lunch often gets a bad wrap – crusty pasta, floppy pizza, and bouncy hotdogs. Honestly, there’s nothing quite like the frozen orange juice cartons or chocolate milk from our youth. What we often don’t think about is the environmental impact of these goodies, not to mention how important their role can be socially and nutritiously.
The largest environmental impact associated with school cafeteria food is waste. In a study of three Florida elementary schools, they found that food waste represented the largest fraction of school cafeteria waste streams – roughly around 50%. The next largest fraction was paper products (like milk cartons and paper plates) and plastics (including packaging and utensils). This study also found that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 could have had an impact on increased food waste. This act requires that students in Florida must be “served” fruits or vegetables with lunch rather than schools being required to “offer” fruits or vegetables. When the child doesn’t want it or doesn’t eat it, that fruit or veggie ends up in the trash. This is related to food choice – one of the key principles of creating food security.
A study of several schools in a small district in Oregon also found food choice to be a key contributor in mitigating food waste. These schools (in comparison to the Florida schools) used reusable trays, cutlery, and milk cartons made from recycled materials – but still created significant food waste. To address this problem (i.e. not all kids want to eat salmon noodle casserole or green peas), the district offered a self-serve cold and hot food bar. Students were allowed to take the portion they wanted and also were given a short presentation on food waste and nutrition. This change resulted in drastic food waste reductions, and kids were offered the opportunity to share their thoughts on the new program. In the words of one child, “Gnarly, dude!” – we concur.
For those wondering about the connection between food waste and climate change, we have one word for you – methane.
The largest food waste savings, however, come from BYOL – bringing your own lunch. This is likely also related to choice – kids know what they’re bringing and if their caretaker packs it for them in reusable containers, there’s also little material waste. One study found that students bringing lunch from home created 13% less food waste than their catered counterparts.
It’s important to note that not all kids can BYOL. For families that struggle with food insecurity or are a low SES (socioeconomic status) household, packing a lunch for the children may be financially or logistically difficult. Most studies of federally funded school lunch programs are associated with significantly lower rates of food insecurity and improved diet quality and academic performance. Unfortunately, food insecurity is directly impacted by climate change because, as temperatures get warmer and climates get drier, crop production decreases (and is expected to continue to drop) in important agriculture regions. This means as climate change worsens, we can expect to see increases in food insecurity.
So, if BYOL is a possibility, that’s great! But, sometimes sustainability is about more than just waste reduction – it’s also about holistic health that includes both people and the planet.
#3 Opt for PEFC-certified pencils and reusable water bottles
We may be dating ourselves here, but from our memories, one of the best parts of kicking off a new year at school is all the swag. From new pencil bags to folders with cute cats on them, it’s exciting to walk the isles of your nearest supply store to find the perfect items (ok, yes, definitely dating ourselves). But, what impact do these new items have on the planet?
In a study of office supplies, researchers evaluated five different kinds of pencils on the impact of their raw materials, production methods, disposal methods, and transportation distances. In each of these impact areas, each pencil type received a score of 0 - 10, with a 10 being a perfect score and 0 the worst score possible. The Staples mechanical plastic pencil received the lowest score with significant impacts coming from its disposal methods (to landfill because of mixed materials including non-recyclable plastics) and production methods (CO2e associated with plastic production). The highest-ranking pencil was the Staedtler Wopex wood-plastic-composite pencil with the most significant impacts in its use of lead materials and supply-side transportation. The wood in this pencil is PEFC-certified, a third-party verified certification focused on using more sustainable forestry practices.
When it comes to keeping your kid hydrated, look for a recycled aluminum refillable bottle…but only if your child can keep it in their possession. A study that compared refillable plastic bottles and single-use bottles found that refillable bottles had significantly better environmental performance, even when the single-use bottle is made of 50% recycled material. However, an MIT study found that producing one ton of virgin aluminum generated 10 times more CO2e than the production of steel – whereas the production of recycled aluminum would use only 5% of energy than the production of virgin aluminum. Let’s break that science down a bit more: reusable containers are typically less impactful than single-use ones, and reusables made of recycled content are the bees’ knees. This is all to say that reusing a product does not guarantee an environmental benefit. A recycled aluminum bottle would require that someone reuse it approximately 50 times to offset the CO2e from its production, which is why it’s important for your child to keep that same bottle for at least half the school year.
Let’s say your kid can keep their grubby little paws on their refillable water bottle. This only matters if there’s clean water available to them at school. Enter: hydration stations. At the University of Villanova, one study found that 91% of students would be willing to switch from disposable bottles to reusable ones if there were easily available hydration stations on campus. Another study that interviewed students at Purdue University found that reusable water bottle use was influenced by whether individuals trust the tap water to be clean. If districts have the resources to do so, schools can set up easily accessible hydration stations with clean water to influence students to bring and keep refillable bottles.
Happy back-to-school season!