Zero Waste School Year: Sustainable Supplies + Waste-Free Ways to Improve Your School

zero waste school year

Ready to have a zero waste school year? I haven’t been in school since 2016, but I can honestly say I miss the excitement that comes with buying new school supplies. That said, I’d do things a little differently now, thanks to zero waste living. To make your life easier, I’ve compiled a list of all the zero waste school supplies you’ll need to thrive this year, all in one place. Plus, I’ve included several waste-free ways to get involved with your school and make a real difference (at the bottom of the post). After all, why stop at school supplies, right? Zero waste is about so much more than just getting new, plastic-free things. It’s about changing your lifestyle, making a difference, and getting involved.

I don’t know about you, but I was very involved in college – I ran my school’s newspaper as Editor in Chief, participated in my school’s literary magazine, and had two internships. The only thing I’d do differently now is approach it from a more sustainable angle – perhaps participating in my school’s food recovery program or writing an article in the paper about the zero waste lifestyle. The possibilities are endless when you start letting your creative juices take over. If you’re still in school, use this as an opportunity to really make a difference. School is a fantastic space to share ideas in a learning environment and really expand on them. Look into starting a clothing donation bin, have your school partner with TerraCycle, hold a eco-friendly fundraiser – the sky’s the limit. I hope this blog post will help inspire you to really think beyond the school supplies. Yes, having zero waste school supplies is great, but don’t stop there. Work to improve your school’s waste problems and educate students and staff alike in the meantime. You’ll be amazed at the things you can achieve. Ready to dive in and put your thinking caps on? Here’s how to have a zero waste school year.

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Zero Waste School Year
Zero Waste School Supplies

Time to get ready for school! Here’s a list of school supplies that don’t hurt the environment.

zero waste school year
The first thing I recommend doing is checking your home and seeing if you have any old, good condition backpacks lying around. If a backpack is made well, you may not need to replace it! If you find one that’s in good condition, and is going to fit all your school supplies, use it! You don’t have to buy new.

For those that do need a new backpack, look into sustainably made backpacks that are both durable and compostable at the end of its life. Terra Thread sells organic cotton canvas backpacks that look very sturdy. They’re also fair trade USA certified and come in seven different colors.

There’s also a lot of beautiful hemp backpacks on the market that come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Hemp is a very versatile plant that can be used to make so many things (plus it’s compostable at the end of its life, just like cotton). Maha Bodhi makes some nice hemp and heavy duty cotton backpacks that come in an assortment of colors and patterns that are unisex friendly (here’s one I really like).

Of course, if you plan on composting any backpacks at the end of their life, make sure to remove the zipper first, and any other metallic parts. Cutting it up into bits will help it compost faster as well. Also, double check everything is hemp/cotton and that there’s no foam padding anywhere. Only compost your backpack when/if it rips and can no longer be used.



We all got to eat, right? In high school, I’d bring lunch from home all the time and I’m so glad I did. Meals from home always taste the best! I highly recommend investing in a metal tiffin for lunchtime – they’re so light and you won’t have to worry about it breaking at all. It will literally last you forever – but if you need to say goodbye (for some unfathomable reason) it’s 100 percent recyclable. Eco Lunch Box makes some amazing stainless steel tiffins – their three in one is the best for storing a bunch of food without having any of it touch.

As far as lunchbags go, you can get some nice organic cotton ones from Eco Bags to put your lunch tiffin into. It has a side rope handle, making it easy to hold on your hand or wrist. If you prefer some colorful designs on your lunch bags, Fluf makes some nice organic cotton bags with various text and images on them. They have snap closures which are also great for little kids. Both are extremely durable and machine washable. At the end of their lives, you can simply compost them.

Here are some of my favorite zero waste lunch essentials (plus a zero waste salad recipe) to inspire you.



zero waste school year

Ah yes, composition notebooks. I remember those – I also remember not using half the ones my mother bought for me. I guess it’s that way for a lot of school supplies, huh? You bulk up and wind up not needing half the things you get. With that in mind, I implore you to search through your home and see if you have any empty notebooks you can use at home lying around. I’ve found so many hiding in my room it’s not even funny. My boyfriend even has a stash of notebooks in his basement, totally untouched! See what you have before buying new.

If you don’t have anything you can use, I highly suggest checking out Decomposition notebooks – they’re made from 100 percent post consumer waste and printed with soy inks. Plus they’ve got fascinating doodles and patterns on them! There are so many to choose from. It’s completely recyclable after use too – or you can even compost it at the end of the school year. Your choice.


Binders + loose leaf

zero waste school year

I used to get a new binder for school every year, along with a pack of plastic wrapped loose leaf. Ugh. So frustrating. Unfortunately, some classes ‘require’ you to have a binder with loose leaf in it. My suggestion to you? Shop your home first. I found a whole bag full of loose leaf and old binders hiding in my closet, among other school supplies. Really go through your home to see if you have anything like that lying around first – you might be surprised at what you find!

If you don’t, you can find a 3 ring binder made from recycled cardboard and the rings are detachable. There’s also completely recyclable paper dividers you can get for your binder as well. You can also compost all of it at the end of its life (aside from the detachable three rings, of course). As far as loose leaf goes, you may need to buy loose leaf packaged in plastic, as I couldn’t find a plastic free option for it. Ask around with family and friends to see if they have any extra loose leaf stashed in their homes before buying any more – never know what they’ll say!


Pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners + highlighters

zero waste school year

Who could forget the amount of pens and pencils you’d go through in school? I felt like I was asking a classmate for a writing utensil every other day! They would always mysteriously vanish into thin air, or someone wouldn’t give me mine back after borrowing it. Either way, writing utensils can be incredibly wasteful in many ways…

As usual, my first tip is to always check and see what you have lying around your home first, before buying new. I have so many pencils and pens lying around my house, it’s not even funny. Not to mention I’ve been using the same pen for the last two years for taking blog/freelance notes and haven’t lost it yet (fingers crossed). I’m waiting for it to run out until I replace it with something more sustainable.

Pencils, especially #2 pencils, tend to come in cardboard packaging which is easy to recycle, so you don’t have to fret over packaging waste. Pens on the other hand typically come packaged in plastic. Try to use up any old pens you already have, then consider donating old pens to Pen Guy Art. If you have a little extra money, I do recommend investing in a reusable fountain pen. They come in several different colors and will last you much longer than a regular pen, for sure. You can just refill the ink when it gets low, which comes in a glass bottle.

As far as erasers go, you can just use the erasers on your pencils. If that doesn’t work too well, get a cardboard box full of erasers. I guarantee you one box will last you a lifetime and you can just recycle the cardboard at the end of its life. There are recycled rubber erasers out there, but they come packaged in plastic which kind of defeats the purpose.

Sharpeners usually are made from plastic and come packaged in plastic. Super annoying. Give a wooden sharpener a try – you can compost it if it breaks and recycle the metal blades. Plus it’s so unique! I personally have been using the same sharpener for years now, even though it’s made from plastic. I also recommend composting the pencil shavings, if you get a chance to save them.

Highlighters are often packaged in plastic and millions are used (and wasted) every day. They make highlighter pencils now which are so much cooler! They won’t dry out or bleed making them far superior. Plus, they’ll last you forever – and when forever ends, you can count on these being fully biodegradable. They come in an assortment of neon colors like traditional highlighters – neon pink, green, yellow, blue, orange and purple. No plastic needed.



zero waste school year

When I was little, I’d always go for the paper folders over the plastic covered ones, whenever possible. While paper folders aren’t super durable (especially with how much I stuffed in them), they’re at least compostable and recyclable. So I’m glad I chose paper over plastic.

Check and see if you have any old folders lying around you can use – bonus points if they’re made from paper too. Staples used to sell paper folders for seriously cheap prices, if you’re on a tight budget.

That said, there are a lot of recycled paper folders on the market now that are great if you don’t mind splurging a bit. EarthWise by Oxford makes paper folders made from 100 percent recycled fiber and 100 percent post consumer fiber. You can choose an assortment of colors, or stick to natural, blue or red folders. They have two pockets that can hold up to 50 sheets of paper per pocket, which is pretty awesome. You also get 25 folders per box, so one purchase from them and you’re good for several semesters! You can recycle or compost it at the end of its life easily too.


Colored pencils + markers

zero waste school year

I have so many colored pencils – all of them have been around for years. I love to draw and my specialty is coloring with colored pencils – they’re my favorite media choice. Once you invest in colored pencils, they invest in you. You might still have colored pencils around that don’t have boxes anymore – that’s okay, you can just put them in a pencil holder (hemp pencil holders are nice).

Colored pencils are pretty easy to find in cardboard boxes. You can also buy them in cardboard tubes or metal tins, believe it or not. 

As far as markers are concerned, see if you have any old markers on hand that are still good before going out and buying new ones. I know Crayola actually has a take-back program called ColorCycle you can sign up for. You can just put all your dried up markers in a box and send it back to Crayola (they’ll pay for the shipping). They’ll seperate the markers, melt them down and create new markers from them. Pretty neat huh? See if your school is already signed up for this program and suggest they do it if they aren’t.


Rulers, staplers, tape, scissors + index cards

zero waste school year

I still have an old plastic ruler I keep around my house, just in case. Hey, you never know when you’ll need it! Look and see if you have any old ones lying around too. If not, get a stainless steel ruler – it won’t break that’s for sure.

I never had to buy a stapler to bring with me to school, so I suggest getting an at-home stapler instead. You can also opt-out of this purchase completely if you know the teacher will have a stapler you can borrow. In college, I would use the library’s stapler and it worked wonders.

As far as tape goes, I never really had to buy and bring tape to school. That said I understand buying it for little kids who may have arts and crafts projects to work on. There is a thing called paper tape, which is biodegradable, but it’s usually pretty big and designed for taping up packages. You might just be better off using what you already have at home instead of buying new tape. Ask friends and family if they have any to spare as well.

I have a whole stash of index cards I never even used. It’s sad, really. I plan on donating them to someone who may get use out of them. I recommend checking your home to see if you have any stashed around too. If not, ask friends and family if they’ll be able to loan you some. Unfortunately I’ve only seen them come in plastic packaging, so it may be hard to avoid waste on these altogether.

I have a pair of old scissors made from steel that are dipped in black paint. They still work pretty good. I also have some scissors that have plastic handles. Hey, as long as it continues to work, right? If you’re in the market for a new pair, shoot for some nice, high quality stainless steel scissors. They’ll last a long time and be 100 percent recyclable if they do break. You can even sharpen them if they get dull, but ultimately they’ll provide a much better, more precise cut.


Zero Waste School Year
Waste-free ways to improve your school

Why stop at school supplies? There are so many other ways to have a zero waste school year. Here are a few ways that come to mind.

zero waste school year

  • Does your school have a local gardening club? If not, try to set one up. Creating a garden where you get to grow your own fruits and vegetables is a great thing that can really foster a sense of community. It also teaches other students the value of food and where their food comes from. If you do have a gardening club already, see if you can improve it by creating a compost pile, harvesting food plastic-free, using organic methods, etc.

  • Does your school participate in any food recovery programs? Consider starting one, if not. The Food Recovery Network could help your school start saving food waste and composting whatever cannot be saved. Find out if your school is already on the list of chapters or if you need to submit an application. If you’re a high school student, check out Food Rescue instead, as Food Recovery Network only works with the higher education sector.

  • See if your school would be willing to do a trash audit. It could be an interactive event a bunch of students can help participate in. Then, when you figure out how much waste your school is making, come up with solutions to combat it.

  • Involved with the school newspaper? Pitch an article to your editor about seeing how much your school wastes annually. It can be an investigative story that makes the front page. Once students (and staff!) see how much waste the school produces, it will certainly motivate them to reduce it.

  • Start a zero waste club in your school! Gather members who are interested in the zero waste lifestyle and host meetings weekly. Find ways to help your school reduce its waste, and talk about ways to individually reduce waste.

  • Always remember to carry your reusables around with you – such as your reusable water bottle, utensils, napkins, etc. Doing so will not only help you keep waste down, but also inspire other students to think about theirs.

  • Ask one of your (trusted) professors if you can give a speech to the class about the zero waste lifestyle. Your science or speech teacher might be interested in this, and it’s a great way to educate your classmates.

  • Does your school host food drives? Offer to help or donate to yours.

  • Get to know the staff at your school and higher ups – if you can befriend them, there’s a chance they’ll be more willing to listen to you when you offer a zero waste suggestion. Perhaps you notice the school throws away a lot of food or paper. Let your higher ups know and propose some solutions that will reduce waste, but also save them money.

What zero waste school supplies are you getting this year? How are you planning on having a zero waste school year? Let me know in the comments!

By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.


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