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Ultimate List of Zero Waste School Supplies

Ultimate List of Zero Waste School Supplies

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on September 11, 2020

School supplies are everywhere right now. There are rows of overly packaged, plastic pens, pencils, and folders.

You can’t deviate too much from the provided school supply list in elementary, but things open up a little in middle school, high school, and especially college. 

I read several school supply lists to figure out the most common asked for school supplies. Most lists used the 5 tabs/binder method. I hated the the binder method.

I ditched the binder in high school for a folder and notebook system. I was so happy to be rid of the binder and hole punching. I’m left handed. School supplies/desks/scissors – it’s tough being left handed. 

RELATED: 10 Tips for Going Zero Waste in College

I’m going to start this post by saying I’m not a teacher. If you’re wondering why you should buy something, just ask.

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 avoid. And, that’s OK. 

I’m just offering suggestions for school supplies that should last a very long time and disposable items that have a better end life than the landfill. 

Top 5 Tips for Buying Zero Waste School Supplies. 

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 notebooks made from 100% recycled paper in the past. It’s also a place you can find things like loose pens or pencil highlighters. 

Stationary Store

This place has lots of paper. They typically have loose items like markers, pencils, and pens. It’s a little bit pricier than 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. 

Lastly

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. You can ready all about zero waste online shopping here

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. I just took it on my camping trip and it’s been with me on every flight as my carry-on.

If you’re looking for a backpack, messenger bag, or laptop bag lean towards something that has a lifetime guarantee like Kippling* or Jansport*.  

These are great items to find second hand often times they’ll still honor the warranty. 

Lunchbag

This is another item you should only have to buy once or twice K-12. In college you don’t really need a lunch box. Although hindsight, having a little metal tiffin to keep in my bag would have been a great idea. I could have snuck out a lot of cookies.  

RELATED: How to Pack a Zero Waste Lunch + 10 Lunch Ideas

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. 

It doesn’t hold a ton of food. I can fit a sandwich and a side salad easily.

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

This lunch box looks awesome for kids. It’s called a Planetbox*.

You can change the magnets out so you can have new design each year. 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?? 

#2 Pencils

Pencils typically come in cardboard. You can recycle it or throw it in the compost.

Eraser

These Paper Mate Erasers* look like a pretty good option. I personally like pens more than pencils. The erasers on top of pencils never seem to work very well making a separate eraser a necessity. 

Plus, with a box this big you should be set on erasers for the rest of your life. These 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?

Those little ones you keep in your book bag hardly work anyway. 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

Colored pens were never a requirement when I was in school.

I was very partial to the Dr. Grip pens. My mom would buy me one at the start of each year.  You could buy refills, but they come with plastic on them. Buying refills is better than buying new pens. 

I recently got a refillable fountain pen*. I was very skeptical being left handed, but the fountain pen forces you to hold the pen differently. You don’t run your hand through the ink.

I honestly wish I had a fountain pen sooner.  They are great for lefties! The ink* comes in a glass bottle. Once I’m out of ink, I can recycle the glass bottle. 

Highlighters

They make pencil highlighters* now. These are awesome. You don’t have to worry about them drying out and they last years!

When you’re done with them you can compost the stubs. You can compost the paper they come in too. 

Markers

I don’t know of many zero waste marker options. But, Crayola offers a marker recycling program. If your 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. 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*.

12 inch Ruler

Opt for one that’s stainless steel, it should last forever.

Tape

I don’t remember ever having to bring tape to school. Maybe for elementary projects? The good news is the refills* come in cardboard

Scissors

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 households don’t have hundreds of these lying around. They can be used pretty infinitely if you’re diligent in loading and unloading them. 

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

Some people love note cards; it’s how they learn best. They’re not my favorite. I like to write a question and answer on a piece of lined paper. Then I use another piece of paper to hide the answer. It’s a similar effect. I’ve only seen note cards wrapped in plastic.

Folders

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 my favorite school supply, and something you’ll need to buy every year. I love notebooks. 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. 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? 

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 it lasts long enough to use for a couple of years! 

Stapler

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. Couldn’t you have stapled it before you went to class? 

If you had to have something portable, I would get one of these cute staple-less staplers.* It makes it easy to recycle or compost your papers.

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.

A couple of readers have suggested wrapping your books in brown paper. If your school will let you wrap in paper, that’s a great option!  


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! 

This post contains affiliate linking. It’s denoted with an asterisk. This means if you choose to purchase one of these items I will make a slight commission for referring you. You can read more on my disclosure page

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  1. I forgot about book socks! Always loved picking them out, although towards the end of high school I did start to think about trash and made my own with brown paper bags.

    Anyways, a great bag brand for all to look into is Duluth Pack. They are handmade in a small factory in Duluth, MN and have a life time warranty. I went to school there and so many friends mentioned having theres since elementary school, and they still looked fabulous! There are all leather messengers and back packs too for those that need the suit look, and if you wait long enough you might find the perfect second hand one on eBay 🙂

  2. I thought it was interesting you didn’t like spirals! I’m also left handed, but I like to totally fold the book back so that my hand isn’t going into the other side of the notebook! I found that my left indent would be a lot larger on the bound notebooks, but I think I may be giving them a go again since this will be my first school year as my new zero waste self. I also have the same pen issue. Thank you for the suggestion! I’ll need to look into those!

  3. When I was in high school and president of the environmental club we collected in good condition school supplies like folders, notebooks, pens, pencils and would hold them all summer and give them out the following year at open house! That is how I got my school supplies my last two years of highschool and I am actually still using some of those items now… 4 years later in college. (I am not the best note takes so one notebook lasts me a long time!) If I need something new I always head to the thrift store or goodwill to look first. They always have journals, notepads, even folders and markers, etc. Alternatively, I have seen many stray pens and pencils on the ground on my campus. I never pass up a littered writing utensil and that is how I have gotten all of my utensils the past 4 years! lol

  4. I need a new pair of scissors and came across this post but your scissor link does not work-it links to tape. Do you have a source for green scissors?

  5. Great post! I have a question, those little pieces from the pencil that appear when you use the sharpener, are compostable? Where should I put them?
    Thank you!

  6. As for markers, Goulet Pens carries some that can be filled with fountain pen inks! Not only do you get to choose the exact color of ink you want to put in there (they have over 500 different inks on their website), but they are continuously refillable. You just have to choose the "eyedropper conversion" option when you add it to your cart.

    https://www.gouletpens.com/marker-pens/c/15

    …Now if only they had a metal version instead :p

  7. Great post! I have 3 kids, 2 of whom are now in college, and I’d like to offer one thought regarding long-term use of supplies. I am really not a fan of plastic. That said, I have found that making a one time purchase of plastic folders and refillable plastic binders has saved not only a huge amount of money but kept a huge amount out of the landfill and recycling. The binders my kids use are made of 2 plastic covers with plastic 3-hole rings. They replace the need for spiral binders and can be customized by subject using lined paper, graph paper, etc. This works for lefties as well because you can write on the paper then put it in the binder. There are no partially used notebooks at year end either. The plastic folders have lasted for about 10 years now and cost about 50 cents each. I buy almost no school supplies annually other than paper or an occasional pen which also means that I don’t waste time or gas driving around school supply shopping.

    1. Awesome recommendation! I’m so glad you found what works you! It really is different for everyone. I was at the thrift store this week and saw at least a hundred binders and 20+ packages of loose leaf paper. 😀

  8. Here are a few more green products:

    Art gum erasers are made of natural rubber so the eraser shavings are even compostable.

    J. Herbin fountain pen inks are made with natural dyes & nontoxic. Wonderful company! Check out jetpens.com. They are pen heaven & have some great green options especially with refillable pens of all types.

    Staples Sustainable Earth notebooks are made of sugarcane waste and have nice thick kraft covers. The paper is thin but even fountain pen friendly.

    I didn’t know about pencil highlighters & will look for them. Thanks!

  9. Cellulose tape is a good option and I have fond memories of covering my books with paper (and drawing on the covers when bored…). Yes to highlighter pencils! Just in case for crayons- I love Stockmar beexwax crayons and have had them for YEARS (preschool teacher).

  10. Another tip for college students. If you own an iPad or tablet of some sort there are certain apps like Good Notes or Notability that basically turn your tablet into a super smart notebook. You can organize your notes, make straight lines, use any color you can think of, send you’re notes in pdf format easily, etc… It’s just awesome! The apps are not free but you’ll be spending A LOT less in the long run because you’ll never have to buy notebooks or pens again! I personally own an iPad and an Apple Pen and its the best investment I’ve made for college.

    1. If the school is lending out the books for the semester they sometimes require book covers so the students do less damage to the books (allowing them to reuse the books for longer)

  11. Hi I use friction pen ink regularly on a reusable notebook to reduce paper consumption, but I typically go through one refill cartridge a week and now have a bunch of empty refill cartridges. As someone that prefers to reduce waste, is there any way I can either recycle these or send them back to the company for reuse or buy the ink itself in bulk to refill the cartridge myself since the top pops off easily? I would hate to have to throw away so much plastic!

  12. Hey, thank you for this list!

    I sadly haven’t found an alternative to geometric triangles.
    If anyone has found an alternative I would gladly like to know!

  13. When I throw out my old notebooks I always find some blank pages and I ripp them out to use as a rough drafts paper.
    I was suprised that school can decide if you have to wrap your books or not. That`s definitely not case in Poland. And sharpener in class for everybody to use? Nice idea.

  14. Nowadays there are also reusable notebooks. They kind of work like whiteboards, but then in notebook style. The pens that come with are easily refillable and most of them come with an app so you can take pictures of your notes before you erase them for the next clas, meeting or day. They come in different shapes, sizes and designs and I love using it for everywhere I go.

    Bambook and correctbook are two of the book options/brands I am aware of, but there are probably more.

  15. Art supply stores often sell items like colored pencils singly, instead of wrapped in a set. They also sell woodless pencils–get HB lead if you want a #2 pencil.

    Another pencil alternative–lead holders (Koh-I-Noor makes an all-metal one) and single, wrapper-free leads from the art supply store. It’s also a good way to get wrapper-free erasers, scissors, etc.

    One caveat–the Papermate erasers listed ARE plastic. Look for natural latex erasers if you want to be entirely plastic-free.

    There are all-metal single-hole punches; they don’t clip into the front of a binder, but they last a lot longer than the plastic ones and can be re-sharpened (this is a diy project–use a steel rasp, or possibly a steel nail file, to get in there) when they get dull.

    There is also water-activated paper tape of different widths, if you need something stronger than cellulose tape.

    (I’m in art school, and my son is entering third grade; we deal with lots of different kinds of school supplies!!)

  16. Oh, and art supply stores carry lots of different colored inks, often in glass bottles (or you can buy your favorite black ink in bulk).

    They also often provide student discounts with ID (both K12 and college), and have huge discounts at the start of local semesters–a great time to stock up on notebooks, sketchbooks, ink, pencil leads, etc.

  17. Oh my god! Do you really need to buy all that stuff for school???
    In Sweden all of that is free and all I as a parent need to buy is a schoolbag so the big girl can carry her homework and gym klothing. All books, all supplies and the lunch (kooked food) are free in Swedish schools.
    For our small girls place in Förskolan (preescool 1-5 years) we pay a tiny fee of 1800 SEK per month, and that includes a open our 06-18 (if we need), three meals and all the supplies she needs. We only need to by ger proper clothing for in and outdoor activities. Rain, snow, sun….

    Our big girl starts in Swedish 7-grade (13y old) and gets a free iPad from school this year, to use instead of several of the books and lots of notebooks. She can use it for free at home but if she i careless and loose it/breake it we have to pay fore it.

    All of this we Swedes pays for with our taxes.

  18. I am in my final year of college and have started cleaning out my old school work that I know I will never use again and most of it was only printed on 1 side of the paper! I have compiled a stack of GOOS paper (good on one side) and use that for my notes and assignments. Some professors may not be okay with that but mine have never said anything about it. I should also point out that I go to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry and we have a zero waste club called the Green Campus Initiative. They have baskets in all of the printing labs across campus where you can put GOOS paper if it didn’t print right or something. Then at club meetings, they collect the paper and bring in cardboard cereal boxes and make notebooks that are sold in the bookstore. The guy who runs the copy center binds then together like composition books!

    I have also been pairing down on the office supplies I had and donating them to the elementary school near my house. It is an inner city school and a lot of the students that go there come from poverty so I know donating the 500 extra pens lying around my house will make a big difference.

    Thanks for all the tips!

  19. I’ve found that a good zero waste marker option is copic artist markers. They’re pricey, but they’ll last a long time because you can buy color refills. You still have to throw out the dried out ink tube, but it’s much better then throwing away the whole marker.

  20. Please look into the Crayola “recycling” program. It’s not what it seems and is highly controversial.

  21. I use plastic BIC pencils but I don’t know what to do with them after they run out of lead. Any suggestions?

    1. You can refill them with standard lead refills. Press the button to open the clutch, and fiddle the lead through the front.

      But I generally advice to avoid them. Better get a brand name refillable mechanical pencil (costs less than $5) and use refills. They work better, and are actually cheaper in the long run.

  22. I have found that school supply kits have become a new trend in schools for teachers and parents. With people ordering most things online now, why not school supplies.

  23. Today everyone thought of having a zero waste environment especially schools and through this article, lots of teachers encourage kids to go for zero waste supplies.

    Thank you and do share such type of contents.

  24. Since this is an old post, I don’t know how relevant it is, but the moleskine journals are "cahiers" (french for notebooks) and not cashiers journals. They’re not specially designed for cashiers or anything- just notebooks! Thanks for the low-waste ideas for school/office supplies! It’s a helpful list.

  25. I live in a college town and our thrift stores have pretty much anything you could want for school/office supplies.

  26. I love LL Bean for backpacks! I bought them before I learned about zero waste, but I am a naturally frugal person. My kids kids are only in elementary school, but they have had their backpacks for their entire school career. I washed them in the washing machine and they look (and smell!) brand new! My husband was so impressed with their backpacks, he ordered one for himself and has been using it for years. One year, I bought an enormous stack loose of notebooks for $.08 a piece (I told you I was frugal ha). These have come into use every year. When crayons are too small to use, or break, I melt them into a silicone Lego man mold I have had for years. We also reuse scissors, lunch bags and pencil cases every year. 🙂

  27. My concern is that many of the items are linked to Amazon who often ship their products with unnecessary plastics inside and their boxes are also covered in non-recyclable tape, are there any ways to avoid this?

  28. Pencil highlighters are awesome. Not only are they eco-friendly, they WORK. SO. MUCH. BETTER. Traditional felt-tip ink highlighters soak the paper. They warp it. They get through to the other side, even through to the next sheet. Did you ever needed to use them on thin paper, like the stuff they use for German law books? Awful.

    Pencil highlighters have none of that. They just go on top of the writing, period.

    (Pro tip. You do not need to buy ones that are marked "highlighters" if the store doesn’t have them. Most stores by now stock "neon" colored pencils, which are essentially the same thing.)