Sustainable(ish) Studying: how to be an environmentally sustainable student

We all know that climate change is a really important issue and there’s so much information out there about how we can live more sustainably. But how can you bring that eco-friendly lifestyle into your child’s school life and help them become a more environmentally sustainable student?

I had a chat with Jen Gale, a mum of two and an expert in living sustainably. Jen founded her online community, Sustainable(ish), to help people implement easy and imperfect ways of living more sustainably. She also has two books out: The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide and The Sustainable(ish) Guide to Green Parenting

Jen’s philosophy is all about making a difference by doing what you can and not getting too caught up in the pressure of being perfect to take action. 

I got to talk to Jen about sustainable living as a student and all the ways that you can encourage your child to be a more eco-friendly student. Here’s what she had to say.

1. Stationery for sustainable students

One of the easiest eco-friendly changes you and your child can make is their stationery. 

Getting new stationery at the start of a new school year is always an exciting treat and a great way to start the new year. But can your child make do with what they’ve already got? 

If their stationery from the last school year is still usable then it’s always better to get them to use it up than to buy new straight away, even if you want to buy more sustainable stationery going forward. 

But what about when they do need new stationery? 

Pencils vs pens

When it comes to creating those colourful revision notes, students usually reach for a packet of coloured pens. 

Next time your child’s current coloured pens run out of ink, though, try buying colouring pencils. Pencils are generally made out of wood and, as a natural material, wood breaks down easily, unlike plastic pens that will stay around in landfill for countless years to come. You can even get highlighter pencils now too, to replace plastic highlighter pens.

Make sure you are buying wooden pencils though. Some pencils are now made out of plastic, Jen warns, and will have you throwing away handfuls of plastic slithers after sharpening them. 

When it comes to doing written work, though, a pencil probably won’t be suitable. Instead, your child could use a refillable fountain pen

These pens have refillable ink cartridges that you can easily refill from a pot of ink. This means that you’re not throwing away a whole pen or even a plastic ink cartridge every time it runs out of ink. 

When it is time to get rid of your current pens, the best way to get rid of them is to find a recycling point through the Terracycle website – your child’s school might already be one. If not, then you can take them to many of the Ryman shops to recycle. 

Paper 

When buying new printer paper or notebooks, look for 100% recycled paper and, specifically, those labelled ‘post-consumer waste’. This is what we imagine recycled paper to be – already used and discarded paper that’s smooshed up and made into new paper. 

If you can’t find recycled paper, look for paper that’s FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, which means it’s been made from trees that have been managed to high standards. If you can, though, it’s always best to use recycled paper, as it means no new trees have had to be chopped down to make it. 

To help save paper, Jen also recommends you make sure your printer at home is set to print on both sides of the paper (if it has this function). Save any scrap paper that’s only been printed on one side – it can come in really handy for revision.

And, Jen says, remember to recycle any paper once it's finished with. 

Can you use less ink? 

Something you might not have considered is the type of font your child uses. Though it might sound ridiculous, Jen shares how changing your font from Arial to Century Gothic helps you use a third less ink. 

Though it doesn’t feel like a big difference, it's these small changes that add up.

2. Sustainable school uniform

I know that buying new uniform is the bane of many parents’ lives. A lot of students go through uniform really quickly as they grow. Having to buy new uniform all the time not only gets very expensive but it also impacts your carbon footprint. 

Try second-hand 

Buying second-hand uniform might not sound glamorous but it’s an ideal sustainable swap and a great way to be a more sustainable student.

Many secondary schools don’t have an official second-hand uniform service but ask around and see if there’s a WhatsApp group, a Facebook group, or something similar, where second-hand uniform is circulated. Or ask friends and family with older kids whether they have any unused items of uniform to pass on.

Though there might be certain specific things your child’s school requires you to buy, such as branded P.E. kits, other things like trousers and shirts are often more generic.

Buy organic cotton 

If you do need to buy new, look for organic cotton ranges, like M&S’s Better Cotton Initiative. Growing organic cotton uses no pesticides and fewer resources compared to many other popular fabrics. So, if you can afford it, organic cotton is always a better option when buying new. 

Always buy as little as you can get away with 

The fewer clothes you buy, the least amount of resources need to be used. How little you can get away with is a personal choice and depends on what fits into your lifestyle and how often you can do laundry. 

Also, consider how often something actually needs washing. As Jen says, you can simply sponge the mud off the knees of school trousers rather than washing the whole pair. 

Recycle school shoes 

When your child grows out of their shoes, you can recycle them through schemes like Sal’s Shoes. 

Sal’s Shoes collects your unwanted school shoes and takes them to developing nations where children often don’t have the shoes they need to attend school. Some Clarks stores have bins where you can recycle your shoes too. 

If they still have life in them, you could also pass them along to friends and family or even sell them on eBay. 

3. Think about how you travel to and from school

Travel is a huge part of our individual carbon footprint. As a nation, we’re very dependent on cars but walking or cycling instead is an ideal way for your child to become a more environmentally sustainable student. It’s also a great way for them to get a little bit of exercise in and can have such a good impact on their mental health. 

Depending on where you live, it might not make sense for your child to walk or cycle, but there are other alternatives to driving them. For instance, if you live in a city, they could make use of public transport by taking the bus or train. If you live in a more rural area that’s too far from the school to walk or cycle, you could take advantage of a school bus service. 

Remember that it’s not all or nothing

You and your child can make the decision that they’ll walk to and from school more but that doesn’t mean you can never drive them to school again. 

If it’s raining or they have a lot of kit to carry on that day or perhaps when they’re staying late at school one afternoon, you can still use the car. If you’re used to driving all the time, aim to go car-free three times a week to start with, for instance.

4. How can we reduce waste at school? 

A really simple but effective way to cut down the amount of stuff that gets thrown away at school is to make recycling as accessible as possible. Ask for paper recycling boxes or bins near printers, make sure there’s at least one in each classroom and that they’re labelled clearly so students know exactly what they can put in them, for instance. The easier it is to recycle, the more the students and teachers will do it.

Check what else the school could be recycling too, like crisp packets and pens, and ensure there are easily accessible bins for these too. 

The Terracycle scheme is really helpful for recycling things that aren’t collected by local authorities. The scheme allows you to raise money for a nominated charity too, which can even be the school’s PTA. 

Some things, like food waste, will need to be a more strategic discussion for the catering team. However, even just asking the question of what happens to the school’s food waste can start a conversation and be a catalyst for change. 

There’s plenty you can do at home to combat waste at school as well. If your child takes a lunchbox, think about what you use to package the food in. Can you stop using single-use items like cling film? Tupperware or even plastic food containers that you get from your local takeaway can make a great alternative. 

As with Jen’s approach to everything sustainability-related, it doesn’t have to be perfect. That means you don’t need a perfectly plastic-free packed lunch – just swapping out single-use items for multi-use items makes a big difference. 

5. How can students make sustainable change happen? 

No matter who you are, it’s easy to feel powerless when it comes to the climate crisis. One of the best things you can do is to remember that you have a voice, and so does your child. 

Schools are ready-made communities that sustainable students can influence through their words and actions.

It’s often uncomfortable to be the one to say something different but you might find that others actually do agree with you.

It can be as simple as asking gentle questions to start a conversation, like ‘‘Why don’t we use paper recycling bins in the classroom?’ or ‘Does anyone know what happens to the food waste from the canteen?’. 

Your child could even join or start an Eco Club at their school. There are some great organisations, like Eco-Schools and Transform Our World, that can help guide them on bringing environmental awareness into their school. 

6. Helping your child deal with peer pressure as a sustainable student

No matter how environmentally-minded your child is, handling peer pressure can be tough and it can take a lot of bravery to go against the status quo. 

Equipping your child with the language they can use to explain their choices is a really powerful way to handle any negative peer pressure they might experience as it helps them articulate why they’ve done what they’ve done. 

Peer pressure can also work in a really positive way. For instance, when your child’s friends see them making sustainable choices, it might inspire them and give them permission to make sustainable choices too. 

Similarly, students feel most able to make sustainable choices when the school as a whole takes on an environmental ethos, so directly encouraging the school to implement more environmentally-friendly practices is a great first step. 

What sustainble changes can you make to your studies?

Being a sustainable student doesn’t have to be about making big life changes and shouting about the environment from the rooftops. Making small changes like I’ve talked about today have a ripple effect and those small changes can create big changes. 

So, over to you. What sustainable swaps are you and your child making? Are there any other sustainable changes you’ve implemented that have been successful? 

If you're looking for other ways you can help your child achieve their full potential at school, take a look at some of my other study skills and revision resources.

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