One thing that I did not anticipate when I began homeschooling was all of the waste that my family would produce. Craft projects, schoolwork, art supplies, half-used sticker books, empty tape rolls, glue sticks, glitter packs, googly eyes, etc., etc., constantly end up in the trashcan … and landfill. While some of these things will break down naturally and/or can be recycled, it’s the plastic stuff that will end up living on for perpetuity and that has motivated a number of changes in our home.
My kids and I decided a few years ago that enough is enough! It’s time to do our part to have an environmentally friendly home and homeschool. Here are eight easy changes we’ve made that I would like to share – four for the homeschool and four for the home:
Reducing Plastic in the Homeschool
Eliminate the Laminator
Many homeschoolers swear that laminators are essential tools … they make it easy to reuse worksheets, protect special projects, make placemats, make craft items, and are often considered a homeschooling must-have. And although I have never owned one, what I do own are hundreds of plastic sleeves I have bought in bulk at Costco over the years that serve the same purpose and produce the same waste.
Every time I am tempted to buy a laminator or replenish my plastic sleeve supply, I fast-forward to what I will do with all of the awesome laminated worksheets I will make once my kids have mastered them. The answer is that they will go in the trash. And although I can at least rotate the contents of my plastic sleeves and extend their life spans, ultimately they will meet the same fate … so I am committed to not buying more.
We use crayons and colored pencils instead of markers
We still have a bin of markers that I bought when my eldest was in kindergarten, six years ago. And they are fun to use. But I do not replace them as they dry out. Instead I’ve stocked up on crayons and colored pencils to try and avoid all of that plastic. We have lego-shaped crayons, rock-shaped crayons, finger crayons and regular crayons. And my kids’ each have a set of colored pencils that they take with them everywhere.
Do we miss using markers? Yes. But not enough to add them to the landfill.
If we buy paint or glue, we purchase large containers instead of small ones
I still don’t know how to purchase school glue or paint without using plastic bottles. Do any of you have a source for these things, or an environmentally friendly way to make them? For now, I buy large containers in order to produce less waste … the large containers can be washed and reused for various things when they are empty.
My goal with glue and paint is to be conscientious of how much we use … I help my three-year-old pour paint so we don’t end up with excess, and if there is excess, we all stop what we are doing and join him for painting. I personally am in love with Rubber Cement – I use it for everything – and I buy the largest containers I can. This area is a work in progress for me. For now I focus on using less (we don’t do cut-and-glue projects very often) and reducing small packaging.
We no longer buy plastic manipulatives
When I taught my eldest daughter to count, we collected 100 pebbles from a beach and used them throughout her kindergarten year. I still have them, stored in a glass jar in our school room. What I should have done was stopped there – those pebbles would have been enough to teach all four of my kids to count. But instead, over the years, I added many more plastic items to our homeschool: counting bears, plastic rulers, a plastic scale, Cuisenaire Rods, base-ten blocks, plastic abacuses. We use them all, but I’m not sure that we need any of them. If I had to choose one, I would say that base-ten blocks are the most useful math manipulative … and so if I were going to buy them all over again, I would buy this set of wooden blocks. But as it is, my excessive store of math manipulatives will outlive generations of my family, and there is something super disturbing about that! I highly recommend starting out without these things if at all possible.
Reducing Plastic in the Home
We use bars of soap instead of liquid soap
It is pretty simple to find (or make) soap bars instead of buying liquid soap in a plastic bottle. When the kids and I make our own soap, I find that the soap base always comes wrapped in plastic … so we tend to just buy homemade soap from a local farm in order to eliminate packaging.
I have been looking for local sources of soap making supplies that don’t come prepackaged, and I am also looking for a source of shampoo bars. My next big plastic-reduction step is going to be eliminating shampoo and conditioner bottles from our showers … I’ll update here when I find a decent alternative (or if you have one you use and love, please let me know!).
When we shop, we bring our own grocery bags, produce bags and glass jars
This is a pretty obvious way to reduce plastic consumption, although I really didn’t get the hang of it (or rather, the habit of it) until recently. It requires having your bags handy (always in the car!) and having your jars cleaned and weighed (and also in the car). We are lucky enough to live within reach of Bob’s Red Mill, which is located in Milwaukie, Oregon, so we head there and buy gluten-free flours, oats, and more in bulk.
We avoid buying snacks in single-use packaging
I still have a hard time finding pastas, alternative dairy products, and alternative milks in plastic-free packaging, but snacks are easy! Just buy bulk carrots, celery, and fruit (in reusable mesh produce bags) and slice them up for healthy snacks all week. We also buy bulk nuts and dried fruit in paper bags, store them in jars, and use fabric snack bags (instead of plastic) to tote these around to activities.
My kids and I always feel awful when we throw out a plastic wrapper after enjoying a treat for only a minute or two. The motivation to not do this is huge when you understand the impact that one wrapper can have on wildlife and the environment.
We make our own bread and alternative milks
In our household, we are dairy, gluten, soy and corn free. We used to be egg and nut free as well, but were recently able to change that. It has been challenging over the years to make sustainable packaging choices when so few prepared foods were available for our family to safely eat. If and when we were able to find a snack that met all of our dietary requirements, we bought it – whatever the packaging! Now that we have more options – such as eating eggs – we are able to reduce our plastic use even more. We can bake our own bread at home now and actually enjoy eating it (baking gluten-free bread without eggs is one challenge I never succeeded at!). This means we can easily eliminate bread packaging, which – in a family of six – amounts to one plastic bag per day.
Alternative milks (rice, almond, oat, etc.) are another source of constant trash in our home. With a little practice, it is easy to soak nuts or grains and turn them into delicious milks. I do this as often as possible and include the kids in the process. My hope is that if I don’t personally perfect our almond milk recipe, they will 🙂 In the meantime, every batch we make in glass jars reduces the amount of packaging we use.
My kids and I did an experiment a few months ago. We set up a cardboard box in the garage and put every bit of our plastic waste into it for one month. We quickly overflowed the large box, even though we are a plastic-conscious family. The majority of the waste was plastic packaging from food. Bread, pasta, cracker, chip, flour, rice milk, dried fruit, nut, alternative cheese, spice containers … it seemed as though everything we purchased except for produce and bulk grains came wrapped in plastic.
We do our best now to simply not buy packaged items. It definitely makes meals trickier, and although we don’t always succeed at it (I am still searching for a bulk pasta that does not have gluten or corn in it, for example) our trash production has significantly decreased.
Which brings me to this new and improved slogan:
I love that “refuse” has been moved right up to the top of these lists. It is powerful to realize that all we have to do is refuse to buy something we don’t want in our home … every purchase is within our control. Do we really need all of those easy snacks? Another set of markers? Shampoo in a plastic bottle? Probably not. Will they make life easier? Yes. But the right road to travel is often the harder one.
I hope some of these ideas might help you all. I am constantly searching for ways to reduce our environmental impact even more and I love reading other people’s blogs on the subject. If you feel so inclined, I would love to hear how you limit your plastic use in your home and homeschool!