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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Green Products Guide: Writing Utensils and Other School Supplies

Tap into these tips for finding environmentally friendly materials.
By Evantheia Schibsted

Begin your search for these products by asking whether the product is reusable, recyclable, or made with materials containing few or no toxic ingredients? When buying supplies, trust your nose. An item that smells bad probably isn't good for you. No standardized green label of approval exists for all items in the writing implements and school supplies category; however, these useful guides and tips can help with the search.

How to Choose:

Avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) plastic. Called the "poison plastic," PVC production involves using toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer and can harm the immune and reproductive systems. If a product contains or is packaged with PVC, the number 3 or the letters V or PVC will be underneath the universal recycling symbol. Unfortunately, many school supplies, including lunch boxes, binders, pens, color-coated paper clips, and notebooks contain PVC.

Look for non-petroleum-based ink when choosing pens, because petroleum is not a biodegradable or renewable source material. Soy-based ink is preferable. Also, make sure pens are refillable and recyclable.

Choose products made with the highest amount of postconsumer waste (PCW) materials, if possible. (PCW consists of items that have completed their intended purpose. Instead of being tossed into a landfill, they're recycled.) And consider what happens at the end of a product's life. Can it be recycled?

Educate yourself. To help parents (as well as school purchasers and teachers) find products without toxins, check out The Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies. An initiative of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, this free resource (found at chej.org) offers practical pointers and product listings.

For those shopping online, TheGreenOffice.com boasts thousands of green supplies and a ranking system explaining what qualifies them as such. Green school supplies can be more expensive, less expensive, or equal in price compared with traditional supplies, which makes shopping around imperative.

Product Picks:

  • AusPen whiteboard marker. Refillable, nontoxic, xylene free (translating into no harmful fumes and odor), and made of aluminum, this dry-erase marker is a healthy alternative to a traditional whiteboard marker.
  • Eco Line pens, manufactured by Zebra Pens. Most of this line is made from recycled materials. These PVC-free, mostly refillable pens can be purchased at Staples and OfficeMax.
  • Earthwrite Woodcase Pencil, manufactured by Paper Mate. Made of recycled newspaper, it has 100 percent PCW content.
  • Elements Eco-Friendly Round Ring Binder, manufactured by Aurora Products. This recyclable binder's construction uses polypropylene (plastic) over paperboard, and the adhesives do not contain VOCs. Materials are 70 percent PCW content.
  • Safety Scissors, manufactured by Acme United Corporation/Westcott. This lightweight stainless steel scissor is made with 70 percent recycled material.

Certification:

No standardized certification exists for school supplies. As one safeguard, look for the ASTM D4236 label on art supplies, such as crayons, markers, and finger paints. Products that meet the ASTM D4236 standard are appropriately labeled for chronic health hazards.

Also look for labels from the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI at acminet.org). Products with this label have been evaluated by independent toxicologists. ACMI's AP (Approved Product) label means the product is nontoxic. EcoLogo certifies pens.

Evantheia Schibsted is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Edutopia.

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