Saturday, August 21, 2010

Back to school leaving smaller footprints.

Hi everyone,

Watching the stores pile up supplies for the back-to-school frenzy made me wonder about environmental impact of cheap paper and plastic funneled into backpacks across the country.

The hidden dimension here is actually cuts in state funding to schools. The sorts of things that now show up on school district school supply lists are items that the schools were once able to supply.

In the meantime, however, Saturday's column.

Going green when going back to school
While these steps mostly won’t affect your child’s grades, the environment will love it

As the kids head back to school this month, and young parents recapture some quiet time during the day, here are some options for those who want to lighten their carbon footprint.

First, stop driving your kids to school when you only live four blocks away. Make them walk with each other or ride their bikes. Organize a “walking bus” or “safe routes to school” program. When I wrote about this back in April 2009, the school district was “exploring” the idea. Maybe it’d save the district money on buses? In any case, it’ll certainly save you money on gas.

Second, double check the pencils and pens on your school supplies requirement lists for the words sustainable or recycled. It’s possible to find pencils made from old newspapers these days, and you can even find ball point pens made from recycled materials.

Third, try to avoid buying anything made with PVC No. 3. It shows up in notebook covers, backpacks, art supplies and lunch boxes – besides, these days, our old metal lunch boxes have quite an indy-fashion punch as well, so if you still have your Spiderman or Green Lantern lunchbox, recycle it into the next generation. Of course, if you need the dough, you can probably make a killing selling it on eBay and then fall back on what our moms did: reuse brown paper bags. I may have used the same three or four brown bags for most of high school. For notebooks and paper, check for recycled paper and covers with at least 30 percent post-consumer waste (PCW) and, better, paper that wasn’t whitened with chlorine bleach.

One nice thing about brown bags is that there’s not much room for bottled water which, fourth, is a wildly self-indulgent and nonsensical cultural addiction we need to break. Every survey done by both government and private consumer protection groups shows that municipal tap water in the United States is safe, just as tasty and a lot cheaper. If you feel the need to send a bottle of water with your youngster to school, find a BPA-free plastic, BPA-free aluminum or stainless steel water bottle and top it off from the tap.

Fifth, I found a number of lists recommending ways to alleviate the annual environmental impact of buying school supplies, but one from the Environmental Working Group actually included recommendations about cell phones. Cell phones? The fact that this even appears in their list tells me I’m completely out of touch with the lives of contemporary 6-year-olds, a lot of whom, apparently, have cell phones. (Full disclosure: I don’t have one of those demon phones yet and don’t plan to get one.) The EWG recommends a phone with a lower radiation (or SAR) value. While current testing indicates no relation between cell phone use and cancer, there is a very high correlation between in-class cell phone use and annoyed-teacher-syndrome – a condition that can have a lasting effect on your child’s grade point average. Best advice: Teach your child to turn the phone OFF before class.

Sixth, consider a backpack made from natural fiber or, again, at least one that avoids PVCs.

And seven, be sure it doesn’t weigh so much that your student stops growing. I wrote a column last year about the increasing weight and heft of backpacks after I saw a line of fourthgraders on their way to school bent beneath their packs like Sherpas on the last push up Everest. The situation is unchanged and this year’s National Backpack Awareness Day, sponsored by the American Occupational Therapy Association, is scheduled for Sept. 16.

Frankly, if the nation actually requires an increased backpack awareness then we’re really overloading the kids.

Here are the grisly details: a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study found that more than 75 percent of students ages 8 to 12 now suffer from increasing back pain caused by schlepping around their school backpacks. Consumer Reports found that sixth-graders were carrying backpacks that weighed, on average, 18.4 pounds – but it wasn’t surprising to find kids carrying as much as 30 pounds. How could this happen? Here’s one part of the answer: a 2003 report by Texas A&M University System Health Science Center College of Medicine found that 96 percent of parents had never checked the weight of their child’s backpack; 34 percent had never even checked the contents. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends school backpacks should never weigh more than 20 percent of your child’s total body weight.

Our future goes back to school next week. Let’s lighten that burden, along with their environmental impact, when they do.



Kevin Scheunemann said...

Children's school supplies?


The Federal government is the worst polluter in this nation and the least environmentally astute.

You criticize the children (and parents) without criticizing the D.C. politicians?

JPenterman said...

I am hoping to see the futurists' predictions come true: That schools provide 6-12th grade students with $150-$250 mini-laptops with the textbooks built in: The digital textbook upgrades are automatic (No more outdated textbooks), the weight differential is significant, and the digital textbooks come with animation, links, interactives, games, quizzes, etc.

I wonder of I could make money selling empty (safe) water bottles in vending machines for $0.25? Fill it up yourself at the fountain and save $0.75!