September Challenge: Zero Waste Back-to-School

Current Location: London, UK

Today is my first day of graduate school at the London School of Economics! I’m incredibly excited to start my master’s degree in Environmental Economics and Climate Change. Since I’m back to school (hopefully for the last time…), I decided going waste-free on school supplies would be a perfect September challenge.

I love back to school shopping. There’s nothing that makes me feel more prepared to start the year than with a fresh set of notebooks and writing implements. However, all of these new products are incredibly wasteful because they are often packaged in excess plastic and there are more sustainable products. I’ve thrown away countless pens, pencils and notebooks — and I understand how satisfying it feels to discard supplies at the end of the year. I think it will be even more satisfying for a product to last a long time and to know how much mileage I’ve gotten out of it.


When I finished my last semester at Brown (cry), instead of throwing away my old notebooks, I took care to recycle every possible piece. The cardboard and paper inside the notebooks, in addition to the metal spiral binding, I was able to put directly into our curbside recycling bin. Unfortunately, I bought plastic-covered notebooks from the Brown University bookstore which were not recyclable. I did save a little bit of waste by cutting the Brown seal off of the cover and using it to decorate my scrapbook, but most of the cover went into the bin. If you want to recycle your old notebooks, check out these tips.

I’m a big fan of taking notes in notebooks as opposed to laptops. I have found that taking notes by hand helps me remember the information better (and this is backed up by research). I did some research and was considering Calepino notebooks. These notebooks are beautiful. They’re sizable, sturdy, and made from 100% recycled fibers. There are a lot of great options online for notebooks made from recycled materials. I was  also considering the hemp notebooks from Ecopaper which are actually made from agricultural waste instead of trees, but with the shipping costs this was not a cost-effective option for me.

However, this summer I was presented with a unique opportunity to upcycle. One morning when I arrived at work (on my bike), I discovered several large shipping crates sitting on the curb. I couldn’t tell if the crates were incoming or outgoing because they were filled to the brim with beautiful unused binders in every color. A coworker of mine walked by and remarked, “Isn’t it sad these are all going to waste?” I responded, “You mean these are free to take?”


I carried a large stack of binders emblazoned with “The Birds of CITES and How to Identify Them” up to my desk and excitedly/perturbedly informed the other interns of this treasure trove/travesty. They all ran down to the curb and raided the bins as well. In total, we probably claimed/rescued 30 binders. A big win for some environmentally zealous unpaid interns.

With enough binders to last me a lifetime, now all I needed was paper to fill them. I planned to pick up some recycled paper in London, but again, another unique upcycling opportunity presented itself. In August, a senior member in my office retired and moved out of Switzerland. He decided to bestow all the belongings he no longer needed or had space to pack to the office interns (this resulted in a month where I seasoned my food exclusively with turmeric). When I saw that three full graph paper notebooks were up for grabs I quickly laid claim to them. In all, I was able to solve my notebook needs without spending a single cent or wasting a thing!

Index Cards

I’m also a really big fan of index cards for studying. It’s much more effective to handwrite your own cards rather than typing them up on an online flashcard service or using someone else’s. I have a sizable collection of index cards that I’ve already purchased, but when I run out I plan to restock with Environotes recycled index cards which are 30% post-consumer recycled materials and 70% pre-consumer recycled materials.

Pens and Highlighters

As with index cards, I have a fairly large stock of disposable pens and highlighters that I plan to use up before I switch to a more sustainable option. It’s fairly difficult to recycle used pens; Terracycle has a disposable writing implement recycling program which is great for communities or schools, but not at all cost-effective for individuals. Alternatively, I plan to recycle my used pens, highlighters, and markers, by donating them to Schuyler Costas, an artist who creates his work exclusively with disposable writing implements. It’s not a perfect recycling solution, but it’s certainly better than sending pens to landfills. The best statistic on pen waste I could find was from a NYT op-ed in 1988 which cited an EPA report (which I cannot locate) that estimated Americans dispose of 1.6 billion pens per year. I can only imagine that number has risen.

Once I’ve cleared through my supply of disposable pens and highlighters I plan to restock at The Pilot ballpoint pen is made from over 90% recycled materials and is refillable. For highlighters, I’ll use the Zebra Optex 1 EZ highlighter which is also refillable and made of recycled materials.


I considered investing in more sustainably produced/easily recyclable pencils, but knowing myself I lose pencils far too often for that to be an effective solution. I already own about 20 mechanical pencils which I can easily refill. My resolution for pencils is to stop throwing empty mechanical pencils away and to do a better job of keeping track of my own pencils! Another really cool option are the Sprout pencils. These pencils contain seeds in the ends, so when your pencil is sharpened down to the nub you simply plant the pencil in a pot of soil and it grows into herbs, tomatoes, and more.


Since I’m resolving to keep and refill my mechanical pencils I need to supplement the erasers. I do currently own a classic pink pearl eraser, but it’s coming to the end. I’m replacing my pink pearl with Onyx and Green recycled rubber erasers which come in recyclable packaging.

Sticky Notes

I’m a sticky notes addict and it needs to stop. I have enough sticky notes to last me into the next century. Resolution: don’t buy any more sticky notes! And also to remember to recycle them since mixed paper recycling centers in the US can usually process sticky notes.

These six items include 99% of the office supplies I use. As I navigate this challenge I’ll have to think more closely if I use other supplies and how to reduce my waste in other areas. More updates on London life to come!


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