By, Stacy Weinberg Diève, MOMAS Steering Committee Co-Chair
As a kid, I used to love getting new school supplies at the end of each summer. I loved the shininess of new Trapper Keeper folders, the feel of a blank composition book, and perfectly formed new crayons. I never thought about the toxic chemicals that are so prevalent in our school supplies, especially those marketed to children.
I was shocked and dismayed when I came across a 2012 study by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) which found that 75% of children’s back to school supplies tested in a laboratory had elevated levels of toxic phthalates, including popular Disney, Spiderman, and Dora branded school supplies, such as vinyl lunchboxes, backpacks, and 3-ring binders. According to CHEJ, over 90% of all phthalates are used to soften vinyl products that are widely used in school and office supplies. Phthalates are linked to asthma, learning disabilities, diabetes, and other chronic health issues. PVC is a carcinogen and reproductive toxin. Thankfully, there are a growing number of companies and stores (including online retailers like Amazon and Life without Plastic) that sell safer alternatives. I will share from my shopping journey 8 tips for finding safer school supplies:*
(*Please note that all school supply brand recommendations are my personal opinion, not a product endorsement or affiliation on behalf of MOMS Advocating Sustainability.)
To steer clear of phthalates and PVC, avoid products with the word ‘vinyl’ on the label or the recycle number ‘3’.
Tip #1: Backpacks made of natural fibers like cotton, hemp or canvas are better options. I just purchased EcoGear and EcoZoo backpacks for my kids, which are made of cotton. Read more about purchasing PVC free backpacks at I Read Labels for You.
Plastic lunchboxes and water bottles can contain PVC, as well as the hormone disrupting chemical Bisphenol -A (BPA). BPA is widely used in polycarbonate water bottles, which can be identified by the recycle number ‘7’.
Tip #2: Look for stainless steel lunch boxes from companies like To-Go Ware and Planet Box or eco-friendly soft-sided lunch totes like Lap Top Lunches that are PVC, BPA and lead free. For reusable water bottles, I am a fan of the Kleen Kanteen stainless steel bottles and Takeya glass bottles.
Chlorine is commonly used a bleaching agent in paper products. It is a reproductive toxin and linked to asthma. Ordinary chlorine bleach is listed as a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tip #3: Look for unbleached paper products or those whitened without chlorine bleach. Many big box office supply stores sell chlorine free, recycled paper products. You can find recycled printer paper at Office Max and New Leaf sustainable notebooks at Office Depot. Online retailer Green Line Paper sells a variety of chlorine free paper products and unbleached envelopes.
Traditional 3 ring binders and plastic folders are made with PVC and may contain phthalates.
Tip #4: For greener alternatives, look for binders made of paperboard like those found at The Naked Binder or recycled binders by Earth Binder. For binders and other presentation accessories like pocket folders and binder dividers, and other green school supplies, check out The Green Office.
Tip #5: When shopping for paper clips, opt for the plain metal varieties, as the colored ones are often coated with PVC.
Markers are a staple of any art supply kit, but often contain toxic solvents and artificial fragrance that cause respiratory system damage. I like the Clementine Art brand, which is now sold at Whole Foods. I am also a big fan of the Stubby Pencil Studio, which sells eco-friendly school supplies like markers, crayons, highlighters, pencil sharpeners, and more.
Tip #6: Avoid permanent and dry erase markers which contain higher levels of solvents, as well as scented products.
Tip #7: Beeswax crayons are a more eco-friendly alternative to paraffin crayons which are made from crude oil.
As hard as we try as parents to protect our children’s health, my last tip is for the kids that are still coveting a Spider-Man backpack, a sports team binder, or fairy princess lunchbox:
Tip #8: Decorate with stickers and patches! This can be a great way to liven up plain school supplies without the added toxins.
Happy (and healthy) shopping!