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The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
For Back-To-School Remember: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
by Andrea Lani, Environmental Specialist
with the Maine DEP's Bureau of Air Quality

With the first day of school right around the corner, it’s time to get back in
touch with the three R’s—Reduce, Re-use and Recycle.  

With all of the “Back-to-School” ads and flyers urging us to buy, buy, buy, it’s
easy to forget all the natural resources that go into making those pencils,
rulers, backpacks, sneakers and jeans, not to mention the energy consumed in
the process of creating and transporting those all-important school supplies.  
Here’s how to keep the three R’s in mind when preparing for that much-
anticipated (or dreaded) first day:

Inventory.  While it’s tempting to stock up on the ten-cents-a-box pencil sales
at the office supply stores, chances are you already have a lot of what your
kids need.  Go through last year’s pencil cases, your kids’ art supplies, and
even your own desk drawers in search of barely-used pencils, serviceable
rulers, unopened boxes of markers and crayons, and nearly-new notebooks.  
Next, hit the closets.  Have your kids give you a fashion show with last-year’s
school clothes to see what fits and what doesn’t.  

Refurbish.  If last year’s school supplies are still in usable condition, but don’t
look great, give them a face-lift:  decorate notebook covers and pencil boxes
with colorful paper, pages cut from magazines or photographs and decoupage
paste. Last year’s backpacks and lunch boxes can most likely be cleaned and
spruced up with patches or beaded decorations.  Put together a full set of
crayons with the loose, unbroken ones rolling around in the kids’ craft bin.  
Sharpen old pencils and cap over the old erasers with new ones.  Holey jeans
can be made stylish again with clever patches and embroidery—a fun crafty
project you can do with the kids.

Buy used, recycled and organic.  When rounding out your children’s
wardrobes for the coming year, don’t discount hand-me-downs, consignment
shops or thrift stores.  These can be great sources of high-quality and unique
items.  When buying new clothing, look for those made with organic
unbleached cotton and dyed or printed with water-based inks.  Hemp and
linen fabrics also come from less pesticide-intensive crops than cotton.  Many
school supplies, including pencils, rulers, paper and notebooks come in
recycled options, and some manufacturers offer soy-based or beeswax crayons.

Pack a waste-free lunch.  Many of the pre-packaged lunch items available
today offer a convenient way of getting lunch made, but they come with the
environmental cost of lots and lots of packaging.  Instead, purchase (or
rummage around your house to find) a reusable lunch bag or box, and
reusable containers for the food and drinks.  (When looking for backpacks and
lunchboxes, avoid PVC plastic, which may contain lead.)  Then get creative
and make fresh, healthy lunches for your kids, using items from your own
garden or the local farmers’ market.  Get the kids involved in planning and

Involve your kids in your efforts to Reduce, Re-use and Recycle, and they will
have already learned their three R’s before they get to school.  

For more ideas, go to,,, and

Story by Andrea Lani, an Environmental Specialist with the Maine Department of
Environmental Protection's Bureau of Air Quality.  E-mail your environmental
questions to or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17
State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.
Back to school tips
Back to school tips, reduce,
reuse, recycle

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