School Supplies are Environmentally Frustrating

Torn school binders bound for the trash

In the next couple of weeks, our children will be heading back to another year of school.  Think of the countless binders, pencil cases, crayons, pencils, and other paraphernalia we buy.  But what I dread more than buying school supplies, is the end of the year when I have to dispose of all those beat up beyond recognition binders, folders, tabs, and other non-recyclable school supplies.  What the heck do you do with the short pencil stubs?

I have four kids who have multiple teachers .  Each year I purchase at least 20 binders.  As each child gets older, he need one binder  per subject as required by his teacher.  Gone are the days of one binder with multiple subject tabs.  This teacher wants a 3 inch binder, that one wants a 1 1/2 binder, and perhaps another teacher wants a folder and a binder.

Tearing up an agenda for recycling

At the end of the year I go through a cathartic process.  I am so relieved that school is over for the year.  No more agendas to sign, no more projects, studying for tests, and thank goodness, no more paper.  The paper that comes home alone will smother you.  So, I go through each child’s papers and we recycle everything we don’t need and keep the artwork  or writing samples we like,  so they can see them again when they get older.

Then I tear apart agendas and recycle the paper.  Does anyone have an idea how to reuse the spiral part?  I also rip out pages that were written on out of spiral and composition notebooks so the balance can be reused for next year. At the end of the process, we store everything that can be used again and the rest that can’t be recycled goes on the kitchen counter.

Torn up school binders

So, what is left on the counter? You got it.  20 or so binders bound for the trash since they have been beaten up  from falling on the floor, being taken in and out of jammed backpacks, and of course, the ones slightly ripped from being pulled at in class when one of my children was bored.  Half the time, I can’t even get through a full year of school without replacing a binder or two.

Over the last couple of years, I haven’t been able to just throw the binders away.  Instead, I tear them apart, and recycle what I can.  This year was different since I bought my older sons the TerraCycle cardboard binders.  Believe it or not, 90% of the binders made it through the school year.  They were a breeze to tear apart since they were cardboard.  I needed help to rip the steel three ring part off the binder since they installed very tightly.

EcoVue Recycled Content Binder

The other plastic binders were more of a problem.  I bought recycled plastic content binders (see above) since the store was out of the TerraCycle cardboard binders.  I figured it was better to buy them than new, virgin plastic binders.  Previously, I have good luck with using  some heavy duty plastic binders for more than one year.  There is no rhyme or reason why.  I was hoping this would be the case with the recycled content binders.  Unfortunately, the recycled binders bit the dust at the end of the school year too.

may 2009 241

The recycled binders were so hard to tear apart.  They seemed to have more adhesive as well as having added plastic reinforcements inside the cover.

Torn up binders with some bound for recycling and others to the trash

As you can see from the picture above, there the parts of the binders that can be recycled is in one pile and the trash is in the other pile.  Where did  it all go?  The cardboard went into the recycling can and the steel 3 rings  still sits in my pile to go to the county recycling with my fluorescent light bulbs.  I probably should have called to see if I can just throw it in the aluminum can recycling.   It broke my heart to throw away the floppy plastic part which was no longer had its cardboard inside.  Unfortunately, I can only recycle #1 and #2 plastic bottles.

During the summer, my sadness turned to anger, and decided to invoke “the power of one” doctrine that I heard at the Jumpstart Conference when I interviewed the sustainable urban panel.  One of the panelist commented that all you need is the power of one to change the world.  Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish invoke that doctrine when she scored a major victory with Clorax to take back the Brita Filters.   It is more constructive to b*tch about something, if you have solutions to go along with your complaints.

In the previous school years,  I have bought plastic Avery Dennison binders.  They are a big company and I thought they should have a take back program for their binders, or create eco-friendly affordable recyclable binders.    By the way, I happened to love this Company.  I use their labels, their fee design software, and many of the other products.  They just made my life easier over the years, but I haven’t stop to think what I was using was environmentally friendly.

When I went on their website to find the name of their sustainable VP,  I was taken back on how many sustainable concepts they have employed.  So, I thought this idea would be easy to propose.

First, I started with customer service who directed me to the “binder” product manager.  He called me back and did not seem to have any real solutions to my requests.  He did direct me to their website to see their cardboard binders which has a manufacturer’s listed price starting at $9.38 for the 1 inch binders to $14.99 for the 3 inch binder. (Note, this binder has a dark outer shell versus the TerraCycle’s cover which is just plain cardboard. It is also less expensive at Staples.)  I gasped when he told me the price, and said, “wow that is expensive. I did not pay that much for my TerraCycle binders.”  What was he going to say except they source high quality materials.

Then I was directed to their public affairs VP who was wonderful. She patiently listened to my request.   I thought this power of one idea was sweet.  All you have to do is take initiative.  Someone pinch me.  I don’t remember if she told me she would connect me to the right people or she would look into it.  All I know is that it ended positively.  I was out of the gate and running.

Fast forward, three weeks later. Despite two emails and a call which told me she is on vacation until next week, I am still where I was at the end of the school year.  Tearing up binders was still in my future.  I am waiting for her to return and will continue my quest.

Plastic markers bound for the trash can

Let’s not forget about all the other school supplies.  What about all the stubby pencils at the end of the year?

Or the used up markers?

Or the pens that crack?

Shouldn’t these companies take them back to reuse them in some way?  Better yet, shouldn’t they make products that can be recycled?  In the meantime, here are some suggestions:

  • If you can, buy items on  the PVC free school supplies list,
  • Buy supplies that you can recycle such as cardboard notebooks (See Office Max or  In addition to the TerraCycle binder, Office Max also sells a Kraft paper binder. I have not seen it yet.)
  • In the alternative, buy something that will last so that you can get some “wear” from them for a couple of year.  My kids are still using their plastic folders.  Although, I was not a fan, I needed something that would hold up.  I think we are going on our fourth year with these folders.
  • Look what is your cabinets to be thrifty and green before you buy new.

What ideas do you have to make the end of the year’s clean-up less environmentally stressful?  Have any suggestions on how to recycle pencils, markers, etc?

This post is part of the Green Mom Carnival on this month’s topic of back to school hosted by Lynn of Organicmania.  Check out all the other Green Moms and Mothers of the Earth’s posts to hear what they have to say!

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  1. 1


    I know you mentioned on my post that you didn’t like the ReBinder cardboard binders, but at least the metal rings are reusable and all you have to replace is the cardboard. Nothing to throw away!

    But I’m with you. Companies should take back their products for recycling/reuse. Please do let us know what happens. And let me know if you want to start a letter writing campaign. I’d be happy to write my own letter!
    .-= Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish´s last blog ..Green Moms speak out on Bottled Water =-.

    • 2

      Green Talk says

      Beth, I loved the rebinder concept until I looked how thin the cardboard was. It would never make it in my household. I think it is better served with adults who take care of their “stuff.” I know I can count of you to help me with a letter campaign. You are my inspiration! Anna

  2. 3


    Wow Anna – I’m super impressed that you go thru so much effort to recycle/reuse your school supplies! That’s a lot of stuff w/4 kids. This is my first year for binders…and my son needs only one. I’m going to check Office Max for the kraft paper kind. Thanks for the tips!
    .-= Mindful Momma´s last blog ..Healthy Lunch, Happy Child =-.

  3. 5


    What about tackling the problem from the other end – the schools!

    I’m sure all that paper is just because they can. My youngest is in an alternative school and only brings home one sheet of homework per week which is then stuck into a scrap book. He has three class exercise books which are covered by the class fees and that is it. All art work is also collected and comes home at the end of the year tied up in woolen thread. No plastic is allowed – even their pens are fountain, not ball point, and are earned when your work is neat enough. (he is 11 by the way).

    viv in nz

  4. 6


    Do you know any crafters who could take the metal binder rings? Many crafters need those to make notebooks with covers that are reclaimed materials like book covers, or product packaging. Many crafters were making these items (a la Teracycle) on a small scale in Teracycle’s early days while they were concentrating on building up their worm poo line.
    .-= Condo Blues´s last blog ..Wine Box Wall Treatment =-.

  5. 9


    I love the take back idea! Let me know if you are going to start a letter writing campaign! I would love to help.

    And if you don’t do your own graphic design I would make you a button for it if you wanted for all of us to put on our page. :)
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..The Economy And Going Green =-.

  6. 10


    I am so impressed that you turned your outrage into action to try to get them to take back these binders. My daughter is just in preK, so I haven’t had to deal with all the supplies at the end of the year. And perhaps another part of this could be going to the school and asking them to encourage teachers to let students use one binder with divider tabs like the old days. That would also help eliminate a lot of the waste.

    Thanks for teaching me something new today!
    .-= Jennae @ Green & Gorgeous´s last blog ..A Parent’s Guide for Going Back to School Green =-.

    • 11

      Green Talk says

      Jennae, this is a really good point. If your school has a green team, this is a point that they should discuss. Thanks for bring it up. Anna

  7. 12

    Caroline L says

    That’s really interesting. That’s great that you’ve gone through so much thought concerning the sustainability responsibilities of the binder company. Another problem for back-to-school is backpacks. I found these backpacks that are each made from 7 recycled water bottles. Check them out here if it sounds interesting!

  8. 13


    OK -I’m really late commenting on this post but…I WAS at one time the marketing manager responsible for Avery-Dennison school binders. So, I can give you a little insight into this issue.

    Avery is doing their best to implement sustainability but…binders are a total issue that will be tough for them to implement a take-back program. These products are sold at almost a loss to keep the price down for consumers. There is zero margin (unlike in Brita filters) for almost any programs like that.

    That said, Avery manufacturing folks work closely with marketing and I would not be surprised to hear that they were doing their best to continue to make the line more sustainable.

    For binders, the best approach ( the one I would take anyway) would to make better binders that last (which they do) but market them better as “reusable year after year” – I’m always willing to pay a bit more if I think I can reuse something- it’s just a matter of marketing that way.

    BTW- Avery was a great company for whom to work – they really listen to their people!
    .-= mcmilker´s last blog ..Hey I’m Green =-.

    • 14

      Green Talk says

      MC, Avery is actually making paper binders now but they are expensive compared to their competition. As for listening to their customers, I have to disagree. After 3 phone calls and several emails, their media division has failed to call me back after our initial conversation.

      They could easily take back the binders to reuse the steel and the cardboard can be reused as well. The plastic could be reused as well.

      With little companies such as TerraCycle with cardboard binders at 2 to 3 dollars less, I expect more from a large company like Avery. How about a return phone call? Anna

  9. 15


    I am impressed how much work you did to recycle as much of those binders as possible. If everyone did that we would save about 40 million lbs of landfill every year.

    Naked Binders goal is to make something better looking, better for the environment and strong enough that you keep it forever.

    These bare board binders are sturdy, 100% recycled and 100% easily recyclable. We tested them to 50,000 flexes and even ran them through dishwashers to see how they hold up. They easily lived through both tests with no problems. We are now testing them to further to see if there is a point they will fail.

    We also donate 1% of our sales to preserving wilderness areas and wild spaces.

  10. 16

    Jami says

    Sustainable Group has Re-Binder a recycled cardboard binder with a cover can be replaced. The 3-ring thing screws in and out and you can order new covers and keep the 3-ring part for next year. They have 3″ 2″ and 1″ 3 ring, plus they have 2 pocket folders, 3 hole slash/pocket folders, cd covers, all sorts of stuff. Check it out!

    • 17

      Green Talk says

      Jami, I looked at Re-binder at a store and thought they were not very thick especially for kids. With kids taking them in and out of backpack, it seemed like they would just take a beating. Perhaps Re-binder would be great for adults.

      Jami, thoughts? Anna

  11. 18


    Actually, the ReBinder now is available is a solid chipboard option (think a hardbound book but thicker). It’s super durable, backpack friendly and environmentally friendly. What’s unique about the ReBinder as compared to the other products listed is that the cover is actually removable (which is required to recycle). The assembly can be reused with a replacement cover that ReBinder sells at a fraction of the cost of having to purchase a new binder.

    While take back programs from manufacturers are great, it typically comes down to the consumer taking the time and paying the cost of shipping to send the “not so easy to recycle” parts back to the company.
    .-= Green Guy´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

    • 19

      Green Talk says

      Green Guy, did they change the binder from a year ago? When I saw it a year ago it was chipboard but not thick. Can you send me one to try? Anna

  12. 20


    Really interesting article and it’s great to see a member of the public trying so hard to be environmentally friendly. I admit being a bit frustrated with the school for using far too much materials but if that is the school policy then you must obviously abode by the rules.

    The thing that struck me most about the article is what a fantastic lesson you are teaching your children. I hope that you involve them in the recycling procedure so that they themselves can grow up with the necessary skills and education to preserve our planet.

    • 21

      Green Talk says

      VeoliaES, I try and teach my kids and hope that it “sticks” when they are adults. One day I overheard my youngest tell a child not to throw his bottle in the trash since “we recycle here.” Anna

  13. 22


    If you’re looking for the greenest option, Storex products are mostly 50-100% post consumer recycled and are all 100% recyclable plastic. Unlike Avery binders, they’re not made from PVC. Since they’re solid plastic, you won’t encounter the same issue of peeling vinyl and fraying cardboard so your supplies will last more than a single semester. Hope you find this info useful.

    • 24

      Anna@Green Talk says

      Lori, some would say I am obsessed…If you know anyone who get Avery’s attention please let me know. I tried. Anna

  14. 25


    Hi All!

    I am leaving this post for your viewing because after reading the talk of school supplies, I was wondering if anyone would be interested in sampling some products from the company that I am interning with? The company is O’BON. O’BON is an ecofriendly company that produces school supplies out of recycled products. For example, our pencils are made out of recycled newspapers and our notebooks are made from recycled sugar-cane pulp. We use soy based inks, the products are fun and educational. Check out the website. Let me know what you think. I really appreciate your time.

  15. 26


    Well,in my views the onus of making school Eco-friendly rests on school administration’s shoulders,but you are right at the end of year it becomes really difficult to dispose off all the binders specially the metal one.Though schools are utilizing some tools like livebinder or myschoolog to make schools paperless but still a long way to go.


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