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Back-to-school

About this guide

As the summer holidays draw to a close, it's time to gear up for a new school year. Even though school means needed supplies, there are ways to avoid the excess and make things easier on your post-holiday budget.

Don't forget you may be eligible for the help with education-related costs of primary and secondary school studies such as school fees, uniforms, books and sport, music or other lessons. Check with your state or territory education department.

Stationery supplies

There's a great temptation, and sometimes pressure, to buy a whole new set of supplies at the beginning of every year. While some supplies are necessary, there are many ways to minimise the impact and cost of the back-to-school buying spree.

Coloured pencils lined up

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Here are some tips to reduce the impact of your stationery purchases.

  • Make a list—and stick to it.
  • Look for products that are re-usable or contain recycled content. Look online for the growing number of stores specialising in eco-friendly and recycled school and craft supplies. Avoid notebooks with plastic covers—opt for cardboard instead.
  • Avoid items with unnecessary packaging as it consumes energy and resources. Buy in bulk where you can to reduce packaging and cost, but don't buy more than you'll use.
  • Buy well-made durable items wherever possible. While some things may seem cheap in the first instance, they may not last as long as you need.
  • Choose non-toxic options when you have a choice—for example, water-soluble glue or water-based paints rather than acrylic paints.
  • Look for natural products—for example, crayons made from soya bean oil instead of paraffin (a petroleum-based product).
  • Label items to avoid losing them. 
  • Use solar-powered calculators. If a battery-powered model is required by your school, use rechargeable batteries.  
  • Check if your school has a newsletter or noticeboard to sell unwanted school items.

Paper and books

Students and schools use a lot of paper, even as we strive to be more paper-conscious and do more activities online.

Large pile of used paper with computer monitor on top

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Paper manufacturing uses natural resources like fibre from trees and is very water-intensive. The more paper we use, the more resources we use. Much of what we use can be recycled and used again.

Here are some ways to reduce the amount and impact of the paper you use and throw out.

  • Re-use your own paper. Write or print on both sides of the paper or use it for artwork or scrap paper. If last year's notebooks are largely unused, rip out the used pages and give the book a new life, or remove the empty pages and turn them into a 'notepad' for yourself.
  • Buy recycled paper and notebooks. They're easy to find and there's a wide range available. The percentage of recycled content can vary from 10 to 100%. Look out for items that contain a high percentage of recycled fibre or contain fibre from sustainably managed sources, such as plantations or sustainably managed native forests. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified products and logo.
  • Recycle your paper and cardboard, either at home or at school. Sending paper to landfill is a lost resource. As it decomposes it produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. In Australia, our municipal waste receives around 2 million tonnes of paper a year, enough to fill 100,000 semi-trailers.
  • Only print out from your computer when you really need to. Proof work electronically before you print. Many schools now encourage students to submit homework and assignments electronically rather than on paper.
  • Find out if your school has a second-hand textbook scheme. You may be able to source books for English texts in second-hand bookshops. Look after books so they can be used in later years or for siblings. Covering books in paper will help keep them in good condition.

School uniforms

It takes a great deal of energy and water to produce clothing. School uniforms represent a significant proportion of your back-to-school spending, so it's well worth buying sensibly or considering some alternatives to buying clothes off the rack.

Children dressed for school

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See if your school has a uniform clothing pool or second-hand shop, or set up a hand-me-down system with other families. You may be able to sell unwanted items through your newspaper or online. If these aren't options, donate unwanted items to a charity instead of throwing them away.

If your school doesn't have a uniform, choose clothes carefully for everyday school wear that will last and that will mix in with existing wardrobe items. There can be great finds in vintage and second-hand clothing stores, and swapping items with friends is another option. Give away clothes that don't fit or aren't being worn anymore.

Bags and backpacks

If you have a choice in the bag or backpack for your school, look for a durable one that will last many years. Backpacks need to be tough as they often have to carry heavy loads and get quite a beating.

A school backpack

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You can look for packs made from recycled material or natural material such as hemp. You can even get solar powered backpacks which can be used to charge technology like portable music players, cameras and radios. Try to avoid backpacks made from resource-intensive vinyl (PVC), plastics or nylon.

Look for a pack with compartments to help distribute the weight. Pack the heaviest things in first; the closer they are to your child's back, the less strain they'll put on young muscles.

Walk or ride to school

School mornings can be hectic—packing bags and lunches and getting everyone out the door on time. Jumping into the car can seem like the easiest transport option, but relying on car transport comes at a cost—more traffic congestion, more pollution and cost. In most states, nearly half of all school children travel to school by car. If you measure the distance of your commute to school, you might be surprised to find that these trips are less than 3 kilometres—an ideal distance for walking or cycling.

A child cycling to school

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Walking or cycling to school not only saves energy, but will make a significant contribution to the recommended 60 minutes exercise kids need each day. Physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight, builds stronger bones and makes children less prone to anxiety or depression. Inactivity is a huge contributing factor for disease and disability.

If your kids are at primary school and you live within walking distance, find out if your school has a walking school bus. This is where a group of primary school children walk to and from school with two adults, one 'driving' and one at the back. This is a fun and safe way for kids to get to school each day. Socially it's great because they mix with other kids they'd ordinarily only know by sight and make new friends around your neighbourhood.

If your school doesn't operate a walking school bus, you could start your own with other parents. There's lots of information to help get you started:

States and territories have a range of other resources to support active and safe travel to school:

Look out for and participate in the annual Walk Safely to School Day which takes place throughout Australia.

Cycling to school is also a cost-effective means of transport that reduces pollution. It also builds children's skills and confidence as well as provide the opportunity to learn road safety and develop a healthy routine. Talk to your school about participating in the national Ride2School Program. Their website has practical advice about riding to school and a range of resources for parents, kids and teachers.

If you can't ride or walk, public transport is more efficient and has lower costs than individual car travel.

If reducing reliance on car travel isn't feasible, consider sharing the trips to school with other parents by car pooling. It's much more efficient to drive a full car and may take a little pressure off when it's your day 'off'. It will also reduce congestion around school at peak times.

Whether travelling to school by foot, bicycle or by public transport, make sure kids are aware of safety issues and give them safety tips so they know and stick to relevant road rules.

Computer savvy

Schools and students mean computers and printer cartridges—often at home as well as at school—and that means power consumption and e-waste. Before you buy another computer, think about whether you really need it, how you'll use it, whether it can be recycled or re-used, and if not, how you'll dispose of it.

Computer keyboard

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When choosing a computer, consider what's appropriate for you. If you use a computer mainly for emailing, internet browsing and note taking, you'll need a less powerful one—which uses less energy. Try to avoid being caught in the cycle of upgrading to the newest, latest and greatest. Consider second-hand options—there are plenty of places you can source pre-owned or refurbished computers, laptops and tablets, or ask around for someone who's upgrading or has one spare. If you do need a new computer, buy something with sufficient memory that meets your requirements and will allow for software upgrades (requiring greater memory) in the future. If you don't use lots of applications and software with large capacity, consider a laptop or tablet as these usually use a lot less power than a desktop system.

Computers may only be small, but they can churn through power. There are a number of simple ways to reduce power use.

  • When you leave your computer for a short while, turn off the screen to reduce power consumption—contrary to popular belief a screen-saver does not save power.
  • Look for and use an automatic power down. This feature puts computers into a 'sleep mode' (or standby) or turns them off after a period of inactivity. Nearly all computers and monitors have this feature—you may have to turn it on yourself to activate it.
  • Turn your computer off at the wall when not in use for a long time, especially overnight. Even when on 'standby' computers and other appliances continue to draw power. Standby power can account for more than 10% of household electricity use.
  • If you have a printer, only turn it on when you need to print.

Our home entertainment and technology guide has lots of tips for purchasing and using electronic gadgetry.

The e-waste created by unwanted computers is a growing problem in Australia so it's important to re-use and recycle wherever possible. Computers contain a number of toxic chemicals, including lead in the batteries, brominated flame retardants (BRFs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used for coating wires. These toxins can leach into the environment and cause health risks if taken to landfill; so unwanted computers or their parts should never be put into your household garbage.

  • If you have an unwanted, working computer, donate it to a friend or charity.
  • Drop off unwanted televisions, computers and computer products such as keyboards, mice and scanners free of charge at recycling services participating in the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme and help to increase recovery of valuable materials.
  • Planet Ark's RecyclingNearYou and TechCollect both list organisations recycling televisions, computers and accessories by location.
  • Recycle used or empty laser and inkjet cartridges by dropping them off at participating retailers including Australia Post. Search Cartridges 4 Planet Ark for drop-off points in your area.
  • You may be able to organise a cartridge recycling fundraiser for your school—look online for organisations that do this.

If there are no e-waste services currently in your area, look at re-use options or store items safe from the weather until access becomes available.

Lunches

Lunches and snacks are a big feature in any young person's day, but packing a healthy, enticing lunch in a hurry five days a week can be a challenge. There's often a strong temptation to opt for easy choices like pre-packaged snack items and 'easy' things, but not always the things your kids will actually eat.

School lunch boxes and bag

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Food waste and excess packaging going to landfill comes at a cost to the environment as well as the wallet. When rotting food ends up as landfill it turns into harmful greenhouse gases.

There are a few simple things you can do to avoid food waste and cut down on packaging.

Lunchboxes

Avoid packing lunches in multiple plastic bags or plastic zip-lock bags. If all that plastic is thrown out every day, it will add up to a lot of plastic waste over the year. Aluminium foil wrapping is also likely to be discarded at school when it can so easily be recycled over and over again (even when it's covered in gooey food). There are lots of alternatives to plastic lunch wraps including canvas or organic cotton lunch bags and wraps that are PVC-free.

Look for a durable lunchbox that will last for years. Lunchboxes are available with separate compartments for different food items, eliminating the need for individual wrapping. Maybe try a tin lunch box for a retro look, or investigate the 'cooler' lunch bags which can keep food chilled for up to 8 hours.

It's very tempting to rely on snacks that have been packaged up into lots of small, convenient servings, but all that packaging goes straight to landfill. Invest in a few re-usable, sealable containers that you can use over and over again for small servings, or replace packaged snack foods with fruit which comes in nature's own wrapping. Look for some more unusual seasonal fruit options—apples and oranges are great, but try some more unusual options like mangoes, nashi pears or grapes for a change. Or try making some homemade muesli bars and mini muffins rather than heavily packaged snacks. The Better Health Channel Lunch box tips is a good place to look for some inspiration. There are also many websites with new and traditional recipes that make use of leftovers.

Get kids involved in choosing their lunch—they'll be more likely to eat it, and less likely to toss it out. Variety is the spice of life, so mix it up a bit. If you're after some strategies on how to train picky eaters' tastebuds, phase out fizzy drinks and prepare healthy snacks and lunches, have a look at the CSIRO Wellbeing Plan for Kids for ideas.

Encourage children to think about what they do with any food scraps at school. Many schools have a composting system—if not, get kids to bring home any food scraps to compost or give pet worms a treat. Better still—talk to your school about introducing some recycling or composting facilities in the playground.

Drinks

Thirsty kids can go through a few drinks throughout the day and if they don't take one with them, they're likely to buy them in throw-away containers from the canteen. Disposable juice packs are an easy choice for lunches and might seem cheap when you buy them, but they can carry high, longer-term costs—both for your budget and the environment. All those juice boxes will cost you lots more than a stainless steel drink bottle and a couple of litres of natural juice for refills in the long run or better still, opt for water or milk as packaged juice can be high in sugar.

Try freezing a drink bottle the night before and wrap it in a tea towel—this will keep it cool during the day and possibly still icy. Don't fill it right to the top—leave some space to allow for expansion when it freezes.

In the classroom

School is a place of discovery where we learn about our world and the range of possibilities ahead.

A water tanks at a school

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There's a range of ways schools can get involved to take practical action to save money, energy and water. Activities can include real life learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, alongside changes to a school's management of resources and facilities including waste, water, energy, and biodiversity. Programs that engage students, teachers, parents and staff in making changes together is a great way to make lasting changes.

The possibilities and opportunities for schools are enormous and there is a range of excellent programs and resources available to help teachers and students get things underway.

Tackling one topic area at a time (such as energy) means learning and curriculum activities and school management changes combine to result in greater overall educational and savings benefits for schools.

  • To get started on waste issues you could conduct a waste audit to identify current sources and ways to reduce waste, including composting and recycling bins or starting a worm farm to eat up organic waste and establishing a sustainable, edible garden.
  • To get started on energy issues you could conduct energy efficiency audits to identify current energy use and ways to save, including installing energy efficiency measures like energy-efficient lighting, solar power systems, or shade awnings and ceiling fans as well as ensuring good habits such as turning equipment off when not in use.
  • To get started on water issues you could conduct a water audit to identify current use and ways to reduce use, including placing signs above taps and bubblers, and installing rainwater tanks or greywater systems.
  • Your school may be eligible for funding under the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program for school gardens and kitchens.

Most states and territories have a range of energy, water, waste and biodiversity programs to provide practical support to schools and their communities to live and work more sustainably and can help your school get started. See our resources section below.

State and territory energy and sustainability resources