Zero Waste School Supplies

It’s still summer break for most of us northern hemisphere teachers- but that doesn’t mean we don’t have back-to-school fever! Stores are busting out the big school supply displays, and everyone is starting to think about conquering the infamous school supply list.

Parents on social media will notoriously begin their yearly rants about the amount of supplies on the lists, teachers will get defensive and point out that they are spending, on average, hundreds of their own dollars to supplement or in some cases fully supply their classrooms. Big companies are making bank by offering teachers 20% off school supplies to get us in to go on a spree- and no one seems to be talking about the supplies themselves.

supply meme

When was the last time you really re-examined your list- thinking about what could be reused year to year, what could be cut, what you already have a few piles of in a closet, what could be swapped out for something else, what alternatives exist. You might be surprised by how much you can eliminate!

My supply list is structured in two parts: a few things I keep on my list and ask parents to send in, and what I purchase in bulk  using money from the last little note on my list! Also- parents: if your child’s teacher doesn’t specify brand names on their list, you can fill most of your kiddos list from these options!

Ms. Heidi- 1st  Grade

1- Metal pencil box

1-Reusable water bottle

All other supplies will be purchased in bulk and shared among students to save on cost and waste. Suggested donation of 20.00 per student to cover the supplies.

Here we go!

Crayons & Colored Pencils:

I used to ask for new packs of all these every year- and since I do shared supplies, they’d all get passed out into my supply caddies and shared. Then I realized we weren’t actually using up the crayons or colored pencils- they were piling up year to year in my big crayon box! So- I took these off my list. Sure, some of our crayons are broken, and we don’t have shiny new pencils to start out with, but how long do those really last anyway? To be honest, I’ve never ever had a kiddo complain that the crayons we’re using to color aren’t brand new. They’re just excited to color!  If you don’t have a big stockpile yet- keep these on your list. See how many are still usable at the end of the year and save them! Search around online for fun crafts to recycle the really broken down and tiny pieces- or send them to The Crayon Initiative! 


Last year, I had markers on my list but we learned to use them SPARINGLY. We only use markers when we really need our work to POP.  We talk a lot about capping them correctly (listen for the click!) and why we need to take good care of them. So, I still have quite a few packs leftover! When markers do dry out, we send them to the marker graveyard- not the trash. Our graveyard is a little bucket in our recycling station just for plastic markers- including highlighters and dry erase markers. At the end of the year, I box these up and send them off to Crayola to be recycled through the Colorcycle program (and it’s free)! It’s important to note here that these markers will not become new markers. Unlike glass or metal or paper, plastic can only be “down-cycled”- turned into something of lower quality. In this case, they’re melted down for fuel. It’s a lot better than sending them to the landfill, but recycling is not the answer to sustainability, it should be only a small component.

PS: If you need watercolor paints- search Pinterest for tutorials on using dried out markers to create your own paints! This will give them another life before being recycled.


Just like markers, I buckled down on the treatment of our pencils and it was a GAME-CHANGER. Are you CONSTANTLY sharpening and passing out new pencils? Do you feel like there is a pencil black hole located somewhere in your room? THIS USED TO BE ME. I kept sharp pencils in one community bin and dull pencils in another, and kids just switched out when they need to. But good god, did we go through pencils! By May, I was begging for extra pencils. After a while I finally got smart, and gave each student the responsibility of caring for ONE pencil for as long as possible. (Do some searches for The Great Pencil Challenge! There are a million resources out there. pencils

Now, each student uses about 3-4 pencils ALL YEAR LONG. So, of course I’ve got a big stockpile of these leftover, too, so they’re not on my list. When I do run out, I’ll be purchasing something like these- from The Ultimate Green Store. 


Dry Erase Markers:

Alright, here’s the first big switch! I always fought a big dry erase marker battle (please tell me I am not alone here!) I put Expo markers on my list- and would undoubtedly get several packs of cheap off brands which would smear when erased and dry out so quickly. Then, once we all had our markers in hand ready to work- inevitably I’d have to stop a lesson to grab a replacement marker for a learner whose marker was dry. Even with everyone having their own marker labeled and lots of tutorials on keeping the lid on tight, I felt like we burned through these things!

Enter: the refillable dry erase marker. There are several brands online: AusPen and EcoSmart. Both products look like great quality, and one bottle of refill ink is worth at least THIRTY markers! I’ve seen a few other brands around- but many of them sell individual refill cartridges in plastic wrap- which defeats the purpose just a little! I’ve also seen a pencil option from Wisdom Supply Co- a REALLY cool company doing amazing work to lessen waste from school supplies! I haven’t decided yet what I’m getting, but it will be way better than smelly chemical laden Expo markers!


Two Pocket Folders:

Once again, I’ve got a big stockpile of two pocket folders that I’ve collected over the past several years by prowling the aisles at Goodwill every so often for school supplies. I just got 30 matching folders in perfect condition for 6 bucks (20 cents a piece!)- and that’s cheaper than the ones currently on sale at Wal-Mart! I have enough for each kiddo in my class to have 2- we use these for keeping all our loose papers organized.

If I didn’t find second-hand folders so cheap, I’d be ordering these Earthwise folders- carried at Office Depot and Staples, both of which usually do teacher discounts near the school year’s beginning. They’re made of recycled paper and its only $20.99 for 25.



I used to be a big fan of glue sticks, and I asked for SIX from each student on my list since we went through them so quickly! I loved that they weren’t messy, and were easy to use. But then I noticed that every little thing we glued on tended to fall off after a few days- even just gluing paper to paper! And- they were constantly drying out even when we capped them tightly. Take a look at our trash can on any given day and you’d find at least a few little plastic tubes who’d been spent after just a few projects. Last year I made a change and asked for wet glue. We practiced the chant “A dot is a LOT!” and almost every kiddo was great at using the perfect amount and not turning my classroom into glue-pocalypse like I’d feared. So- glue bottles worked great for me!

But, 4 oz glue bottles are still a lot of plastic to glue ratio. So, this year, I’m getting a big gallon glue bottle and making glue sponges! There are so many good tutorials out there for making these, and I’ll also be saving a few of our small bottles to use if we need some flexibility.


Antibacterial Wipes:

This switch is SO EASY! Take these off your list NOW. Antibacterial soap and wipes are really terrible for the immune system, because not only do they kill the bad bacteria, they kill the good bacteria, too! Then, the minute a nasty germ gets on you, there’s none of the good guys to fight it off and you’ll get sicker much easier! Plus, the more antibiotics we use, the more “super bugs” we create to resist these. Yikes! Plus, these wipes are not recyclable or compostable, and they contain lots of nasty chemicals that aren’t good for us or our kiddos. So what do we use instead? Rags and a spray bottle! I asked for 3 washcloths per kid last year, and that is plenty to last me a lonnnnng time. Next, I re-purposed an old spray bottle, and I mix regular old hand soap from our classroom dispenser in there. (You can also make your own DIY all purpose spray!) Every few days or whenever our tables look gross, I walk around and spray the tables and a few helpers follow behind me with rags and scrub scrub scrub. They LOVE IT! I have no explanation for this, but They. Are. Obsessed. If there’s a particularly nasty bug going around, I borrow some bleach to put in my spray bottle, and then after the kids leave I scrub everything myself- leaving a few windows open to air out! When the rags are dirty, they  go in our “dirty laundry” basket by the sink, and when that’s full, I ask a parent volunteer to toss it in their laundry since I don’t have a washer or dryer at home. Oh and parents- if your child’s teacher is still stuck on wipes, try to GENTLY offer to buy a set of washcloths, spray bottle, and organize a laundry rotation to help them make the switch!

For the record, I know some classrooms, particularly early childhood centers, are required to use disposable wipes for health reasons. That’s ok- we all have to work within the system sometimes! When something wasteful is required, we just double our efforts in other areas and move on!


For a while, I was fine with keeping tissues on my supply list. After all, they’re not plastic, we compost them, and they seemed unavoidable. Then, I learned that it can take 90 years to regrow ONE box of tissues because many tissue companies are still clear-cutting old growth forests. NINETY YEARS. Of course, asking for brands with a higher recycled content or even tree-free tissue helps bring that figure down, but as we all know, demanding a specific brand from parents is challenging, and understandably hard for parents with a lot on their plates to deal with. And anytime we have the choice, a reusable option is always going to be better than single use. So reusable tissues? Am I going to have 25 6 year olds carrying around dirty hankies? Uh heck no. Enter: Goodwill to the rescue again! For 5 bucks I got a full set of soft flannel sheets, and using pinking shears (to stop fraying edges) cut them up into 6 inch by 6 inch squares. We’ll blow our noses from the clean pile, toss them in a laundry basket, and when that’s full I’ll ask another parent volunteer to take them home! Does this seem like I’m asking too much of my parents? I hope not- I only had to send home the washcloth laundry basket less than 5 times total last year since we have so many. Same thing with these- I’ve got plenty so I won’t be asking too often!


Let’s be honest- the standard pencil to eraser ratio is just terrible. Especially because we keep our pencils for so long, we burn through that little nub on top REAL quick. So, all my kiddos have a big eraser they’re also responsible for. In the past, I’ve always asked for two big pink erasers from everyone. Then, I learned that most erasers are made from synthetic rubber, which is just a fancy word for plastic. They’re made from “various petroleum-based monomers.” Which means that production of these drives demand for oil and plastic,  and that little chunk that’s always leftover can become more plastic pollution. So, I did a little research and found a great option from The Ultimate Green Store: recycled rubber erasers! They help drive demand for recycled plastics, which is so needed right now! Can’t wait to test them out.



I’m still working my way through a big ol’ pile of regular highlighters that work great, but my next purchase (after we’ve used these up and recycled them!) will be pencil highlighters. They’ll never dry out, so I expect to get lots of use out of them!


Sticky notes:

Just like highlighters, I’ve still got a drawer full of Post-It’s leftover from my “2 packs per student” each year phase. A big rule in going zero waste is to not get too excited and overwhelmed by all the switches that you want to make and buy new things before you really need them. Whatever you have, use it up first! When I do need to buy sticky notes again, I’ll be getting recycled ones! Bonus: they come in cardboard instead of being wrapped in plastic! postit

So! There you have it! Most of these switches are pretty comparable in price to their non-green counterparts, and the ones that are a little pricier like the dry erase markers, will be a one-time big investment that you won’t need to make again for a LONG time. My estimate for purchasing everything I need in bulk is just $175.00. That comes out to SEVEN dollars a student. People often say that being green is too expensive, but can you think of any list where it costs each student less than ten bucks to get everything they need? The truth is- often the greenest option means conserving and using things carefully- and that is also usually the road to saving money!

IMPORTANT NOTE! Of course, not everyone can customize their list like this. Privilege effects our access to many zero waste choices. Many teachers have to match their list across their team, or get a set of supplies from the school or district. It’s always worth asking the higher-ups what can be done to change the lists, especially if you can show them the monetary savings involved. Do what you can with what you have. This journey is all about progress over perfection! And, when you do get to make the changes, I guarantee the parents will be so happy and grateful, and so will our lovely planet!

*None of these products have sponsored me in any way, they’re just what came up as I’ve been researching. You’ll notice I have linked directly to products rather than to an Amazon page. While many of these are available on Amazon, I HIGHLY recommend trying to source them directly or locally. Amazon is notorious for excess wasteful packaging, and their working conditions border on cruel.  I know it’s so tempting to get everything magically shipped for free right to our doors, but the true cost is hidden. Most of the time, other options exist! PS: Need something not on this list, like mechanical pencils? Do a quick search for “eco friendly _________ or green _________” and you’ll usually find some options you never knew about. I just learned Papermate makes COMPOSTABLE mechanical pencils and pens from corn now! Get to researching, friends! 


2 thoughts on “Zero Waste School Supplies

  1. Donnie says:

    Hi Heidi!! What suggestions do you have for hand sanitizer? I’m sure some of us might not have a wash sink handy for water and soap, so have you come across any alternatives?


    • Heidi says:

      Great question! If you’re going to use hand sanitizer, I’d try buying it in bulk from a zero waste shop if possible! Many online shops are now making and selling alcohol based sanitizer and many ship. If that’s too pricey and washing hands isn’t an option, I’d just stick with buying the largest possible jug you can and just realize that nothing is ever going to be perfect and you don’t have to have a totally plastic free classroom. This is all just about doing the best we can in a system that makes it really hard!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s