How to Start this School Year on the Greenest Foot

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As students ready themselves for the upcoming lessons of this new school year, one lesson can start before they set foot in the classroom.

University of Florida experts share just a few ways students can be environmentally conscious when choosing those first-day necessities.

Seek Sustainable Supplies

“First and foremost, look at the supplies you already have and reuse what you can,” said Ramona Madhosingh-Hector, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension regional agent specializing in urban sustainability based in Pinellas County. “And then, for the items you do purchase, assess the packaging for the item and if it is made from post-consumer or recycled content.”

She says these items would be labeled as such, and also suggests parents try to buy supplies in bulk if they are likely to wear out throughout a school year or if purchasing for more than one child. The August 2-6 sales tax holiday is an ideal time to purchase supplies, Madhosingh-Hector adds.

“Look for supplies and clothes from secondhand stores, or see if family or friends may have gently used items their children no longer need,” recommended Randy Penn, a UF/IFAS Extension agent in Sarasota County. “And if you’re able to donate clothing or supplies, consider doing so as another way to minimize waste and help other students start the school year with what they need.”

Once a supply has reached its useful end, recycle what you can, says Maia McGuire, a UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant agent based in Flagler County. She also pointed to companies that offer their own recycling programs, like Crayola’s efforts to collect used ink markers for reuse.

“It’s a little thing, but it’s one less item that has to be thrown in the trash,” McGuire said.

Lunch that Packs Some Green

If your student brings a lunch from home, Madhosingh-Hector said there are plenty of opportunities to minimize waste.

“Instead of buying the single-serve yogurt, buy a bigger container and divide it into reusable containers,” she offers as an example. In addition to many available options for reusable lunch containers, Madhosingh-Hector said students could also use reusable utensils and water bottles.

“Try to avoid single-use plastics as much as possible for packed lunches,” Penn said. He adds that parents can look up whether their local UF/IFAS Extension office offers a make-your-own beeswax wrap class, or learn how to make one at home here.

Home-packed lunches also offer children a chance to be introduced to new foods, Madhosingh-Hector said, in a way that can also contribute to positive environmental impacts.

“By enjoying what is locally grown – Fresh from Florida – and in season, in your own small way, you’re reducing transportation costs and distances to deliver that produce,” she said. “It’s fresher, it’s nutritious, it’s the notion of trying something different, and it keeps the lunch box interesting, as well.”

Consider Asking for an Alternative

School officials may be receptive to students’ proposals to improve sustainability, as was the case in 2017 when a Flagler County high school class teamed up with a nearby elementary class to make a change to the cafeterias district-wide.

After learning about microplastics from McGuire, the 10th graders and second graders were excited to take action. They successfully petitioned school officials to make the switch from nonbiodegradable Styrofoam lunch trays to recycled paper lunch trays.

Word-of-mouth then spread the program, McGuire said. In the 2018-19 school year, at least eight school districts in Central and North Florida were using the biodegradable trays. “It’s important that other schools are having this conversation,” she added.

McGuire said that conversation extends into other ways schools are taking steps toward being more sustainable. Some schools, for example, have added or are looking into water bottle filling stations, farm-to-school programs that provide fresh produce, recycling programs, and composting food waste.

Whether the impact seems large or small, said Madhosingh-Hector, consider “the whole ecological footprint of waste minimization.”

“It isn’t about making people feel guilty,” she said. “It’s about encouraging everyone to look at the options and do what they can to minimize their footprint.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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