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FEATURE ARTICLE - July/August 2010

Look for Earth-Friendly School Supplies

As fall approaches, store shelves are devoted to the annual tradition of back-to-school shopping. According to the National Retail Federation, the average family of school-age children spends about $250 on school supplies (like paper, notebooks, lunch boxes, and more) and electronics each year. But this tradition comes with a cost to the environment, and maybe even the health of our children, as many conventional school supplies contain toxins like poison plastic PVC, dangerous solvents, and more.
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High-Tech and Nontoxic
With students getting more tech-savvy every year, a large portion of back-to-school spending goes toward computers. But these may have toxic innards, including lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and more.

If your student needs a new computer, look for one that is phasing out the use of troublesome chemicals. The “Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics” ranks the top manufacturers of computers, TVs, mobile phones, and game consoles based on their policies regarding toxis, recycling, and climate change. Sony Ericsson topped the list—beating out other manufacturers, from mid-range Apple to bottom-dweller Toshiba, by a fairly wide margin—since it has already phased out brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from its computers and other products. It has also banned antimony, beryllium, and phthalates from electronics manufactured after January 2008, and has plans to phase out organo-chlorine and bromine substances within three to five years.

Nontoxic Art Supplies
Nothing beats a handmade art project stuck on the front of the refrigerator door, but it’s important to keep a keen eye on labels when shopping for art supplies, because some paints, glazes, glues, and markers may contain ingredients toxic to young artists.

It’s easy to find safe supplies for your creative kid by looking for the right label. Look for an “AP” (approved product) label from The Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), which means the product is less-toxic. Some older products may have a “CP” (certified product) or “nontoxic HL” (health label) instead.

ACMI is a nonprofit membership organization made up of art supply manufacturers that voluntarily agree to have their materials evaluated by independent toxicologists and tested by accredited labs for safety.

Stay away from any products with warnings, including those with ACMI’s cautionary label (CL), which indicates that the product contains potentially harmful ingredients.

It is important to note that the AP and CP labels do not indicate that a product is completely free of toxins—rather, that ACMI has determined it contains no toxins “in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans.” Those who embrace the Precautionary Principle would rather not see toxins in any quantity in art supplies, but looking for an ACMI label is a good first step. You can also purchase from green companies that go the extra mile to eliminate toxins from art supplies.

For more information, see our article, “Are Art Supplies Toxic?

Look for Better Paper
While paper itself won’t harm your children, paper manufacturing is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. Pulp and paper manufacturers release about 212 million tons of hazardous substances into the air and water every year, including mercury, a neurotoxicant. The paper industry is the fourth-largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases and the third-largest user of industrial water.

Much of the paper our children use at school comes from endangered forests in the Canadian Boreal, the Southern US, and Indonesia. And conventional paper is often brightened with bleach, a process that releases cancer-causing dioxins
into wastewater.

Instead of buying paper that is contributing to deforestation and pollution, look for notebooks, folders, and loose-leaf with a high content of post-consumer recycled (PCW) content and that are processed chlorine-free (PCF).

Purge PVC School Supplies
It’s important to purge PVC, or vinyl, products from your school supply list. Vinyl-chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, is a known human carcinogen, and many PVC products contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, which are added to vinyl to make the plastic more flexible. While the most dangerous phthalates are banned from use in children’s toys, there is no limit to their use in school supplies.

Plus, other chemical additives, like lead and cadmium, can leach out of PVC plastic into food or liquids, and may also off-gas into the air.

“Children are not ‘little adults,’” says Mike Schade at the nonprofit Center For Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ). “Their developing brains and bodies, their metabolism and behaviors make them uniquely vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals released by the PVC lifecycle.”

Because children’s bodies are so vulnerable, Schade points out, even small exposures to PVC can pose an unnecessary danger, since it constantly leaches chemicals.

The toxic lifecycle of PVC puts even more children at risk by polluting the air they breathe and the water they drink. Manufacturing and burning PVC creates dioxins, a dangerous group of chemicals that can harm the immune and reproductive systems, and are known carcinogens.

Look out for the following: Plastic backpacks in the shape of ladybugs and tool boxes might look cute, but odds are they’re made of PVC. Beware of flexible, shiny plastic backpacks and those with shiny trim. Lunch boxes and bags targeted to children often contain PVC. The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, CA, found unsafe levels of lead in vinyl lunch bags in 2005. And many three-ring binders are made of PVC.

Get Your School to be PVC-Free
You can do a lot to avoid toxic PVC school supplies, but your child may still be exposed to PVC in the classroom.

Vinyl flooring, for example, is prevalent in schools and offices—and it’s known to off-gas dangerous volatile organic compounds. A 2009 study published in Neurotoxicology linked PVC flooring with higher rates of autism spectrum disorders and asthma in children. Plus, vinyl flooring often requires harsh, polluting chemicals and waxes for cleaning.

If your school is planning an addition or a remodeling project, gather with other concerned parents and be vocal about asking it to use PVC-free building materials. For more information and resources about ridding your child’s school of toxins check out our article, “Toxins in Schools: What You Can Do to Solve the Problem.” CHEJ also offers resources as part of its PVC-Free Schools campaign at

By advocating for safer schools and looking for Earth-friendly school supplies for your children, you’ll not only help to protect their health, but you’ll also teach them to be stewards of the environment.

Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist


Where to Get Your Stuff

PVC-free backpacks:
Eco-Planet-EcoChoices Green Store, 626/969-3707
Partners for Just Trade

PVC-free lunchboxes:
Birch Clothing, 612/ 590-0758
Eco-Bags, 800/720-2247
Laptop Lunches, 831/457-0301
Reuseit, 888/707-3873

Green art supplies:
Budget Art Materials, 866/438-8080
Clementine Art, 303/447-0473
EcoChoices EcoArtworks, 626/969-3707

Green Office Supplies:
EcoGreen Office, 866/444-4397 x101
Greenline Paper Company, 800/641-1117
The Green Office, 800/909-9750
ReBinder, 206/432-8020

Find more green school supplies, including recycled and tree-free paper, in the National Green Pages™.


Sell green supplies, help your school
Instead of selling the same old candy, magazines, and virgin-pulp giftwrap, your school can hold a fundraiser to equip students with nontoxic and Earth-friendly supplies for the school year. offers a range of green products on its Web store, from lunch boxes made from recycled drink containers to Fair Trade cloth backpacks to pencils made from wood scraps. Your school will be assigned a unique code for supporters to use when they shop the site, earmarking a percentage of the profits for your group. For more information about green fundraisers for your school, check out our article, “Greening School Fundraisers.”

More green-living articles from the Green American »

Article Summary

Buy green supplies for the next school year.

Some conventional school supplies contain toxins that can harm young children. Others are environmentally wasteful.

Support green businesses while keeping toxins away from your children and the Earth.

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