Ultimate List of Zero Waste School Supplies

School supplies are everywhere right now. There are rows of overly packaged, plastic pens, pencils, and folders. And, while you can't deviate too much from the provided school supply list in elementary - things open up a little in middle school, high school, and especially college. 

The ultimate list of school supplies from www.goingzerowaste.com

If you're heading off to college you can read my top 10 tips here.

Top 5 Tips for Buying Zero Waste School Supplies. 

Watch it in HD on YouTube.

I can't even begin to tell you how much I hated the 5 tabs/binder method called for on all these lists. I actually ditched the binder in High School for a folder and notebook system.  I was so happy to be rid of that binder and hole punching. I'm left handed, so school supplies/desks/scissors... all that stuff - wasn't ideal. 

So, I'm going to start this post by saying I'm not a teacher; I'm not even a parent. But, I firmly believe that they both know waaayyyy more than I do. If you're wondering why you should buy something, just ask But, if they ask for glue sticks - buy glue sticks. If they ask for notecards - buy notecards. There will be some disposable items you can't disregard. And, that's OK. 

I'm offering suggestions that involve long lasting items or disposable items that have a better end life than plastic chotchkies we see so many people buy brand new for each and every school year. 

where to shop?

Your own home!

The first thing you should do is to shop your own house first! How many pens do you have lying around? Do you have any leftover supplies from last year? I remember always having leftover school supplies. (I also remember hardly using a lot of stuff on these lists - mini-stapler anyone?)

A Bookstore

You might be surprised if you pop into your local book store. They typically have specialty items and sell them loose. It's where I bought some really high quality 100% recycled notebooks in the past. It's also a place you can find things like loose pens or specialty items like pencil highlighters. 

Stationary Store

This place has tons of paper and specialty loose items like markers, pencils, pens, and even paper! It's a little bit on the pricier end of the other options, but it doesn't hurt to go check it out. 

Printing Department

If you're in college go check out your printing department. Ours sold blank sheet music a requirement for music theory unpackaged for $5. The also sold notebooks of scrap paper. 


If you can't find what you're looking for at any of the other stores, then head to a big box store or shop online someplace like Life Without Plastic, Amazon, or another online retailer like Etsy. You can ready all about zero waste online shopping here

The ultimate list  of zero waste school supplies from www.goingzerowaste.com

the goods:

I've compiled a list of common middle school and high school school supply lists. I'm doing my best to offer more eco friendly items. 

Backpack or Messenger Bag

This is a school supply that can be used year after year. I still have my backpack from the the 8th grade. It was a very well made Ralph Lauren backpack that I just took on my camping trip and as my carry-on on every flight I've ever been. I didn't carry it in college, instead I opted for a chic fossil laptop bag that looked more adult than a backpack. Backpacks are super functional, but I've always had a penchant for suits and heels rather than sneakers and backpacks. 

Being a Musical Theatre and Mass Comm major I had a LOT of chances to wear suits. Like when on the air, working the front of house, tabling, or any other number of reasons. 

So, if you're looking for a backpack, messenger bag, or laptop bag - lean towards something that has a lifetime guarantee like Kippling or Jansport. Also, these are great items to find second hand! Often times they'll still honor the warranty. 


This is another item you should only have to buy once or twice for K-12. In college, you don't really need a lunch box. Although hindsight, having a little metal tiffin I could keep in my bag to sneak out loads of cookies is not a bad idea.... 

You can read all about what I use to carry my lunch now with 10+ meal ideas here. There are tons of stainless steel lunch boxes on the market these days. Stainless steel is a great option because it's light, you don't have to worry about it breaking, and it will last forever. And, after forever has come and gone it's 100% recyclable. 

I have this eco lunch box. I like it because it's small and super easy to transport. I typically bring my lunch to work in this.

It doesn't hold a ton of food. I can fit a sandwich and a side salad easily. I normally pair it with a smoothie in a glass mason jar, which may not be appropriate to bring to school. But, it is a great size if you don't have a huge appetite. 

I also have this metal tiffin from Clean Planetware. I bought this for Justin when he goes back to school. It has four tiers. it can easily fit snacks, breakfast, and lunch. It has a convenient little handle so you can just grab it and go.   

I'll typically put a sandwich in the first tier, with snacks like cookies or chips and salsa in the second and third tier, and a bagel or banana bread for breakfast in the bottom. I put the salsa in one of these U Konserve kids stainless bowls. They fit perfectly in side of the tiffin.

I saw these online last year. This is a Planetbox. They look so awesome for kids. You can change the magnets out so you can have new design each year. It keeps it interesting. I remember being in elementary school and getting to choose the design of my lunch box each year was a real treat. Also, how good does that lunch look?? 

Plus it's made out of recycled material. 

#2 Pencils

Great news! Pencils typically come in cardboard rather than plastic. So, you can recycle it or throw it in the compost.


These Paper Mate Erasers look like a pretty good option. I was always a bigger fan of pen than pencil. Even if I was using pencil, I would always scratch it out instead of erase. The ones on the top of the pencils don't work very well. 

But, these look like a really good option. Plus you should be set on erasers for all of school. They come loose inside of a cardboard box. No plastic - yay! 

Pencil Sharpener

I'm so confused... Do schools not have pencil sharpeners in the classrooms anymore? Why do you need a pencil sharpener. Those little ones you keep in your book bag don't hardly work anyways. I'd just get an electronic pencil sharpener to keep at your desk at home and sharpen your pencils before you go to school. 

Pens: Red, Blue, Black

Since when do you need colored pens? This was never a requirement when I was in school. I was very partial to the Dr. Grip pens. Mom would buy me one at the start of each year. They came with refillable ink cartridges. Those came in plastic, but it's still better to buy refills than to keep buying new pens. 

I don't know how well I would have done with an actual refillable ink pen. Some kids used them just fine. But, being left handed I would have been covered in ink all down my arm. 


They make pencil highlighters now. These are awesome. You don't have to worry about them drying out and they last years! Also, when you're done with them you can compost the stubs. You can also compost the wrapper they come in. I'm not sure whether or not they are erasable though. 

My dad bought me something similar for my Bible. They worked very well on thin pages like that. Plus there's no plastic used in these! 


I don't know of many zero waste marker options. But, Crayola offers a marker recycling program. If you're school doesn't participate you can sign up here. It's very simple. You just put all of the dried up markers in a box. Crayola will pay for the shipping. Then they'll separate the markers, melt them down, and use the recycled product to make new markers. 

Colored Pencils

You can buy colored pencils in cardboard boxes, tubes, or tins. Just try and hold on to leftovers for the next year! 

12 inch Ruler

Opt for one that's stainless steel. It will last forever and is 100% recyclable when it's life has ended. 


I don't remember ever having to bring tape to school. Maybe for elementary projects? But, I don' know why it'd be necessary for anything else? I guess just buy the type you can get refills for... at least it comes in cardboard! 


These are some quality scissors. They're 100% stainless steel so they're 100% recyclable. But, they should never need to get to that point. They can be sharpened and kept forever. They're about $8 more than their plastic friends, but I think these are worth it. They provide a much better cut and have greater longevity.

USB Flash Drive

I don't know how many household don't have hundreds of these lying around. They can be used pretty infinitely if you're diligent in loading and unloading them. You could definitely buy something really cute for these since they'll last a long time. 

TI Calculator

I would check eBay for this item. That's where I got my TI calculator. Then after you've gotten through college algebra - sell it. you will never use it again. 

Ruled Index Cards

I don't know why you would need these? Some people love notecards; it's how they learn best. They were not for me. I spent more time writing the notecards than studying with them. You can get the same effect by writing the question or answer on one side of the page and covering up the half you don't want to look at with a sheet of paper. 

You can really only get these wrapped in plastic.


They make some really awesome recycled folders now. 

Also, these are a huge bargain! 25 folders that come in a box, for $14. These should last for a couple of years. 

You can throw these in the compost when you're done or recycle them. I'm a fan of just the craft color, but they come in several different colors if you're interested. 


One Subject Spiral Notebooks or Composition Notebook

This is a disposable item. Something that you'll need to buy at least every year. 

These were my favorite school supply. I love notebooks. I used them mostly in high school and college. I would use one notebook for two classes. I'd start the first class on the opening page and start the second class upside down on the last page. 

I like this moleskin journal. It's called a cashiers journal, and it's fairly inexpensive.  A set of three is only $10. I'd buy two which would last me at least the whole semester. It has a pocket where you can store loose paper. The cover is made from paper, and the spine is sewn with what appears to be twine or cotton making the entire book compostable.

People are also saying that ink doesn't bleed through the pages. Which is essential when you're writing on both sides. Save those trees! 

This book is a little bit on the pricier side. But it's so much fun! I had to include it. It's a riff on the traditional composition notebook. It's called a DeComposition notebook.

The whole thing has darling little doodles. It's printed with soy inks and made with 100% post consumer waste. After you're finished with the book it's completely recyclable. 

This is definitely the most economical of the three. It's a set of five Mead journals. I've never been a fan of spiral notebooks... probably the left handed thing. I'm not sure if the spine is recyclable or not. I was trying to research what it was made of, but i couldn't find any answers.

The paper is thick so you can definitely write on both sides, and it's recycled made from 30% post consumer waste. So, you can compost or recycle the pages when you're done with the book. Just hold onto that spine... 

College Ruled Loose Leaf 3 Hole Paper

I don't know if there's really a way around buying paper without the plastic wrap. I think it's a silly purchase, if you have perforated pages in a notebook. 

3 Ring Binder or Zipper Binder & Tabbed Dividers

You can find three ring binders in different sizes made from recyclable cardboard. Some even come with the tabbed dividers. What's cool is the rings are detachable. So you can cut out your own piece of cardboard for the next year. 

3 Ring Binder Hole Punch

I remember these things never lasted very long. But, I couldn't find any alternative to the classic plastic hole punch. I guess just hope for the best, and pray that they last long enough to use for a couple of years! 


Ok, but once again, why do we need a tiny stapler? They only time I can think of stapling a page is to turn in a paper. And, couldn't you have stapled it before you went to class? 

But if you had to have something portable, I would get one of these cute staple-less staplers. It makes it way easy to recycle or compost your pages.

Book Covers

And, last buy not least - book covers! I remember my favorite book covers from middle school. I had a neon purple one and a cool green and blue marbled one that resembled the nervous system. 

They still make these book covers called book socks! You can use them year after year. I hate that they come individually wrapped in plastic, but I couldn't find many other options. 

This concludes my ultimate list for back to school supplies! Leave me a comment with what's on your list that I missed and how you're handling it? Or maybe you have a better solution for something!