When Backpacks Break the Bank and the Planet: A Call for Change

The practice of over-purchasing school supplies needs to be reevaluated due to its negative impact on the environment and health, as well as exacerbating the existing social and economic gaps between communities.

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The annual ritual of students, families, and teachers gathering at local pharmacies and supply stores for a new set of school supplies evokes emotions of anticipation, excitement, and stress for the upcoming school year. Amidst the intensity of the rapid depletion of school supplies from stores and the determination for academic excellence, it’s easy to overlook the consequences of our lengthy list of school supplies. While high school and college students tend to have better judgment over what supplies they will use, lower-grade school administrations typically mandate an excess of supplies for every class. The practice of over-purchasing school supplies needs to be reevaluated due to its negative impact on the environment and health, as well as exacerbating the existing social and economic gaps between communities.

One of the major consequences of buying new school supplies annually is the detrimental impact on the environment caused by the amount of discarded supplies. As global climate change continues to rise, partly due to careless waste management, untouched school supplies bought at the beginning of each school year are eventually thrown out. According to the New York City Department of Education’s “Guide to Zero Waste,” New York City public schools generate over 40,000 tons of waste each year, including both food waste and material waste. The exorbitant amount of waste is not limited to New York City: all of the universities and schools in California generate over 500,000 tons of school waste annually. Furthermore, grade-level schools constantly dispose of usable or recyclable resources such as books, wipes, and even clothing. A study on the components in children’s school supplies found that backpacks, binders, and other materials may contain toxic chemicals, including phthalates, which are used to increase plastics’ durability. CBS News reported that 75 percent of the samples in the study contained phthalates, specifically in lunch boxes, folders, and binders. When the supplies are thrown out as waste, these chemicals can impair hormones and reproduction in wildlife and increase toxicity in aquatic ecosystems, further damaging the environment that younger generations are currently attempting to restore. 

In addition to the harm that school supplies inflict on the climate, the tradition also contributes to economic and social inequality. Back-to-school shopping is one of the most highly anticipated shopping occasions in America—hitting a record high of $41.5 billion in August 2023—as it encourages students to become more invested in their academics through the purchasing of shiny new supplies. However, this tradition is costly and can be a major financial burden to lower-income families. The cost of materials, such as graph paper, folders, and mechanical pencils, rose 13 to 18 percent within the last year, and according to the National Retail Federation’s Report on Back-to-School shopping, families with children in elementary through high schools expect to spend a record-high annual average of $890.07 on supplies. However, this is unattainable for many families in the U.S., especially because of the high percentage of families that are living in poverty. In America, about 50 million people have household incomes below 125 percent of poverty, including 15 million children. On top of this, the graphing calculator is required in middle school and high school arithmetics, and most public schools require or recommend their students to purchase their own graphing calculators, which can cost upwards of $100. Consequently, this can discourage lower-income families from purchasing graphing calculators and other pricey materials, which can, in turn, affect students’ academic performance. Instead of being accessible to all, education has now become immersed in consumer culture.

As technology advances and its usage becomes more normalized, students are often seen bringing laptops and iPads to school to take notes and complete assignments or projects. The digitalization of school has led to a massive reduction in paper use, energy consumption, and carbon emissions, allowing students to engage in a greener education. However, the increased use of digital devices also contributes to the education gap between students with different economic statuses, and over half of students from low-income families faced digital barriers to their education during the pandemic. According to the Community Service Society, four out of 10 low-income New Yorkers reported that digital barriers prevented them from completing their online education, and 65 percent of parents stated that remote learning would result in a setback in their child’s education. Though it is the more eco-friendly option, parents, students, and teaching staff acknowledge that digital learning cannot replace traditional education systems due to the education gaps present and the inability of schools to ensure proper resources and support for every student.

To prevent the further deterioration of the environment and stop the widening gap between economic classes, there needs to be a system of organization in place to make school supplies more affordable without simply mass-producing them and consequently creating waste. The issue is that the innovation of environmentally-friendly school supplies, such as new Eco-Friendly graphite pencils to prevent the over-harvesting of wood, are far more expensive than traditional supplies; as stated previously, schools struggle to keep up with the demand for Chromebooks to replace notebooks. Additionally, durable plastic products may simply end up in the ocean as slow-decomposing waste, as they contain toxic chemicals. The best solution for students is simply to reuse old supplies, such as folders and binders, or donate old textbooks and various resources to local organizations and charities for other families to utilize. Elementary and middle schools need to stop sending out lengthy lists of school supplies that are only a reiteration of the same products from the previous year. Additionally, The Seattle Times reported in 2023 on numerous fundraisers that contributed money and supplies to coalitions that provided school supplies to students in need. On the East Coast, New York has donateNYC, a program hosted by the government that holds school supply drives every year for specific communities in need, such as the Coalition for the Homeless. These organizations reduce the cost of what would have been hundreds of dollars in supplies to $20 per person, effectively decreasing the burden on low-income families and promoting the practice of recycling to preserve the environment. Schools can hold school supply drives, specifically with resources required by the school, in order to limit waste and increase accessibility. 

The overconsumption of school supplies is a multifaceted issue with repercussions in multiple aspects of society. From health and environmental concerns to socioeconomic impacts, school supplies need to contribute to the equal opportunity that education is meant to provide. This starts by ensuring that the environment can support additional generations of eager children with a desire to learn, along with giving all students the resources they need to succeed academically, regardless of economic status.