Ask Eartha: Educate yourself for back-to-school shopping |

Ask Eartha: Educate yourself for back-to-school shopping

Jennifer Santry and Caitlin Akkerhuis

Dear Eartha,I am the Mother of four children and have recently decided to extend my own education by enrolling at the Colorado Mountain College. Needless to say, I have a ton of back-to school shopping to do and not a lot of time. I always try to be the earth-conscious consumer, so do you have any advice on the dos and don’ts of school supplies? – Kathy Backpacks, binders, pencils… I remember them not only as classroom essentials but as an expression of my personality. Naturally it was important for these supplies to exhibit my interests in the environment and sustainability. The products we buy have huge impact on the planet and the terrifying truth is that they may also affect the health of our families. The latest buzz word when it comes to buying school supplies is “PVC-free” – PVC standing for Polyvinyl Chloride. You don’t need a chemistry teacher to understand that these words typically mean dangerous and toxic! Another concern is phthalates that are often used to soften plastics and make them more flexible. Congress has recently recognized the associated threats of phthalates and as a result has banned their use in children’s toys. Unfortunately, the ban does not restrict the use of PVC or phthalates in school supplies. According to the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice, PVC’s toxic chemicals have been found in women, children and babies but the highest concentration occurs in children between the ages of 6-11. It is best to avoid purchasing plastic products all together but PVC is particularly diabolical and is significantly more hazardous throughout its manufacture, use and disposal than other plastics. In addition to causing learning and developmental disability, PVC products are also linked to diseases such as asthma, obesity and cancer. If knowing your enemy is half the battle, PVC is an easily identifiable foe. Items containing PVC are glossy, flexible and have a strong synthetic odor; although I would not condone sniffing all of your back-to school supplies. Often PVC is found in plastics marked by the three-arrow, “recycling” symbol located near the initials PVC or the number 3. When in doubt you can always contact the manufacturer’s customer service line. A complete list of PVC-free supplies and a pocket guide can be found at This will come in handy since the smallest items can contain PVC including the plastic, colored coating found on paper clips or spiral notebooks. You can always purchase the solid metal paper clips or the nylon-coated clips that are safe and colorful. As an alternative to plastic spirals on the notebooks, you can find books made with sustainably harvested wood, metal and paper. There are pencils and pens made from recycled cardboard and newspaper. The PVC-free, eco-friendly market even offers compostable corn-based pens made from renewable resources. Summit County boasts some unpredictable weather patterns, making raincoats, jackets and boots all essentials. Unfortunately there are a number of shoe and outerwear companies that still use shiny vinyl. Instead, look for the easily available products made with more natural fibers and sustainable materials like canvas, hemp, jute and organic cotton. If you are unable to find PVC-free supplies that are decorated with your child’s favorite color or action hero, don’t be afraid to get creative. Craft projects, like decorating a backpack with patches or building a lunch bag from leftover fabrics are wonderful opportunities to bond and ensure PVC-free school supplies.As a conscious consumer you can also inspire others by packing a waste free lunch. Take into consideration the amount of waste generated by what you buy and avoid single-use disposable packaging. This is a great idea since Summit County students are composting their lunch waste. What they don’t eat will materialize into compost and eventually locally grown produce. When it comes to the perils of school, homework is no longer the greatest hazard. PVC is the latest bully and it is up to you to establish a no tolerance policy. Living a PVC-free lifestyle will ensure the safety of your family and the environment. Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry and Caitlin Akkerhuis, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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