Last Updated on September 13, 2022 by The Filtery Staff
So, you got your hands on the yearly school supply list and now you’re on the hunt for pencils, folders, binders, backpacks, and more.
Despite the fact that school supplies are targeted toward children, there tends to be a lot of plastics, mystery chemicals, and toxic contaminants in them. If you’d prefer to go with more natural materials when possible (not only for your child’s health, but also for that of the planet), look no further.
In this guide, we’ve got just about everything you should need to send your kid back to school in eco-friendly style. (We’ve also got lots of tips for how to advocate for a safer school environment, so stay tuned for that at the bottom of the article.)
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Progress > Perfection
First things first: give yourself a break when you’re doing your back-to-school shopping. You’re not going to be able to find ALL of the products you need that are 100% non-toxic/plastic-free/organic AND actually work AND meet the requirements set by the school.
That’s okay! Just do your best. Know what you are going to prioritize, what are your non-negotiables, and where you’re willing to compromise. Remember that there is only so much you can control and just do what you can.
What Does “Non-Toxic” Even Mean?
It’s worth briefly talking about the word “non-toxic” because of the way it’s used in different ways, especially when it comes to kids’ products.
A lot of times, when things are labeled “non-toxic” (like with markers, for example), it’s referencing acute toxicity. It usually means that even if you ingest some of it, it’s not going to be life-threatening.
And while acute toxicity is certainly very important (especially in children’s products), it doesn’t take into account the potential long-term effects of things like endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, allergens, etc.
Children are more vulnerable to the longterm effects of these types of toxins, which is all the more reason to be aware of them. (Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than adults. Not only that, but their bodies and minds are still developing, making them more vulnerable to slight changes in hormonal functioning, which can be disrupted by things like endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenols.)
This is just something to keep in mind when shopping for school supplies (and basically anything else, really!). Just because something says “non-toxic” doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe in terms of potential long-term health effects. (There’s also basically no regulation on that label. Companies don’t have to prove anything to slap a “non-toxic” label on their product and there’s no one holding them accountable if they mislabel something in that way.)
Toxins in School Supplies
There are two main “types” of toxicants you might find in school supplies: intentionally-added and contaminants.
Intentionally-added toxins include things like phthalates (which are often found in soft plastic products), and bisphenols (which are often found in harder plastics). Both of these categories of toxins are endocrine disruptors that can lead to a long list of health concerns, even decades after exposure. Keep in mind, though, that even though these ingredients are added on purpose, you’re not going to find them listed in any sort of label.
Contaminants that have been found in school supplies in the past include asbestos (a known carcinogen), lead (which can cause permanent developmental damage, even in small doses), and BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene).
Over the past couple of decades, there have been multiple investigations done to test for these various toxins in school supplies. It seems like none of the investigations found toxins in ALL of the products tested, but they each found toxins in SOME of them. Brands found guilty of manufacturing products with toxins in them ranged from trusted brands like Crayola to cheap Dollar Store brands.
Even More Toxins in Schools
Things like backpacks, lunch boxes, and crayons are not the only toxins of concern when it comes to schools. In fact, I would argue that the environmental toxins that come from the school buildings themselves are even more concerning than the potential toxins in most school supplies. These chemicals include:
- Lead and other heavy metals can be found all over the place, from paint to plastic products to drinking water.
- Toxic pesticides are often used on playgrounds and fields.
- Harsh cleaning products are commonly used by janitorial staff, which can contain endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and allergens.
- Lead, phthalates, PFAS, and BTEX chemicals are often found in various types of synthetic turf.
- PCBs, which used to be used in things like light fixtures and electronics, have since been banned but still exist in old equipment as well as the soil. PCBs can cause things like reproductive and developmental effects, immune dysfunction, and liver damage.
Older buildings are more likely to have many of these toxins, although they can be found in new buildings as well.
Additionally, schools that are close to superfund sites, chemical manufacturing plants, and military bases are much more at risk for certain toxins in the air, water, and soil.
These environmental toxins are much less within the control of parents (or even teachers and school administrators), but there are some things you can do! We’ll talk about that at the bottom of the article.
Toxic Lead vs. Pencil “Lead”
It might be worth a brief note here that the “lead” found in pencils is not the same as toxic lead. Pencils are actually made from graphite and/or clay, not lead.
Okay, now let’s move on to our recommendations for non-toxic and eco-friendly school supplies without harmful chemicals (or at least less of them!).
We actually have a whole guide just about non-toxic backpacks, which you can check out here. The main thing is to avoid PVC as well as backpacks that have been finished with toxic PFAS water-resistant finishes. Our favorite brands for younger kids are Fluf and Bixbee. Our recommended brands for teens are Fluf, Terra Thread, Hemp & Hope, and Jack Wolfskin. You can check our more brands here:
Lunchboxes, Food Storage Accessories, & Water Bottles
For food storage, you’ll want to avoid toxicants like PVC, bisphenols (like BPA), phthalates, and PFAS (like DWR water-resistant finishes). Look for silicone, stainless steel, and organic cotton instead. Glass is also a good option, but many cafeterias don’t allow it.
For water bottles, stainless steel is usually the best option. Brands like YETI and HydroFlask have a wide variety of sizes, colors, lid options, and more. If you must go with plastic, choose a “better plastic” such as Tritan, which is what Nalgene water bottles are made out of.
Here’s the full article for non-toxic lunch boxes:
Crayons & Colored Pencils
Although the big crayon & marker brands like Crayola aren’t super concerning, they are still made from petroleum products and lack ingredient transparency. You can read more about Crayola products here.
For healthier and safer crayons, check out these brands:
- Honeysticks (beeswax crayons that use food-grade pigments)
- eco-kids (crayons made from beeswax and soy wax)
- Mamamboo (crayons that are not only petroleum-free but also vegan; they’re made from plant-based waxes instead of beeswax)
- Filana (made in Colorado out of beeswax and natural/organic pigments)
Colored pencils may contain engineered wood and binders (a.k.a. glue), which can contain excess levels of formaldehyde, as well as mystery color pigments. (Considering their size, it’s not super concerning though, especially compared to something like furniture, which can contain a lot more formaldehyde due to the amount of engineered wood and glues used.)
For a healthier and more eco-friendly option for colored pencils, check out Sprout. These are made with FSC certified wood & a natural clay/graphite core. Plus you can plant the end when you’re done.
I haven’t really been able to find another comparable brand, so if your child’s school requires more than an 8-pack (which is all Sprout offers at this time), you’ll probably have to go with a conventional brand like Crayola. If you can manage to find a pack that doesn’t have the colored varnish on the outside (like these), those are best. They’re kind of hard to find though.
The soft plastic pencil pouches can easily contain phthalates and/or PVC, while the harder boxes can contain BPA or other bisphenols. So choose cases made from natural materials like cotton instead (even better if it’s organic!). Here are some good brands to shop from:
- Terra Thread carries pencil pouches (as well as laptop sleeves and other accessories) made from organic cotton
- Anchal Project makes toiletry bags that can double as cases to hold pencils and other school supplies. They come in beautiful colors and each one is artisan-made out of GOTS certified organic cotton.
- La cerise sur le gâteau carries cute cotton pouches that come in various sizes and patterns.
- YKRA carries cotton pouches with hooks on them to help keep track of things.
- Rawganique makes a 100% organic hemp pencil case.
- On Etsy you can get a personalized pouch made using cotton canvas and vegetable tanned leather.
- Or check out these nocturnal-vibe pouches that are handmade in the US with organic canvas and non-toxic inks.
- Also, here is a cute case made from cotton that holds all your colored pencils!
- Bixbee is probably your best bet for a plastic pencil case. They’re made from polyester and are actually tested for PVC and phthalates and are completely untreated with things like water-resistant chemicals.
Non-Toxic School Glue
The internet will tell you that the primary ingredients in conventional Elmer’s white glue are polyvinyl acetate, polyvinyl alcohol, and propylene glycol. However, you probably won’t be able to ever find a full list of the actual ingredients since they hide that stuff under the argument that it’s a “trade secret.” If you check out the safety sheet for Elmer’s, you’ll find a whole lot of nothing (there’s a lot of “unknown” and “no specific data” and “not available”). So it’s hard to tell just how “non-toxic” conventional school glue really is…
Try to stay away from the scented glue sticks and choose a glue that uses natural and/or plant-based ingredients if possible. Onyx & Green has a plant-based glue stick and liquid glue, and Elmer’s has a partially-natural option now, too.
All that being said, if you have to go with the traditional Elmer’s, don’t freak out. Elmer’s school glue is almost certainly safer than other kinds of glues, so I wouldn’t worry too much unless your child eats a bunch of it or gets it in their eyes.
Paper, Notebooks, Folders, & Binders
When it comes to notebook paper and notebooks, there isn’t much to be concerned with in terms of toxicants. Recycled paper, notebooks, and folders are certainly a more eco-friendly option, but you also have a higher risk of things like BPA contamination with recycled paper.
For pocket folders, try to go for paper instead of plastic when possible, like these from Earthwise.
For 3-ring binders, you’ll want to avoid PVC by steering clear of the ones with the clear plastic cover on the outside. Go for paper instead of plastic if possible. Or at least look for ones that are clearly labeled “PVC-free.” Greenroom is a good option.
When it comes to regular coloring markers, you’ll want to stick with water-based ones like those made by RoseArt or Crayola. Although they do lack some transparency in terms of ingredients, they’re the safest option available. You’ll want to stay away from the scented markers (like these, for example) because they may contain phthalates and other mystery toxins in the fragrance part of the formulations.
Permanent markers and dry erase markers are more likely to contain toxins like benzene (a carcinogen and probable endocrine disruptor). The good thing is that these writing utensils probably won’t be used that often, so try to limit exposure when possible. If dry erase markers are needed, go with the “low odor” variety (many schools require this kind anyway).
Most schools require students bring things like tissues and cleaning wipes.
For tissues, just be aware that you probably won’t be able to find out what’s actually in most of the ones that come with lotions and scents. Regulations don’t require ingredient transparency on things like paper products. That means they could be totally fine, or they could contain things like phthalates or allergens. So you might want to go with regular old tissues and skip the ones with added moisturizers.
Another thing to consider about tissues is the way in which they’re whitened. Most paper products like paper towels, toilet paper, and tissues are whitened using chlorine, which creates toxic byproducts. You can read more about this in our guide to better paper towels. For a safer and more eco-friendly option, look for tissues that are either unbleached or bleached using chlorine-free bleaching methods.
Lastly, there is the issue of deforestation. Forests are being decimated for the sake of meeting our demand for tissues and TP, which is why more conscious brands are switching to “tree-free” products that use bamboo instead. (Bamboo is very renewable and fast-growing, and it requires a lot less resources such as water.)
For wipes, hand sanitizers, and other disinfection products, try to find ones that use alcohol as their active ingredient as opposed to bleach/chlorine or quats. You can read more about the ingredients to watch out for (and which brands we recommend) right here.
And for all-purpose cleaning products, check out this article.
Of course, there is a lot of school cleaning that’s done by janitorial staff that you don’t have any control over… We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Back to School Clothes
If you’re looking for casual organic clothes for back to school shopping, check out this article for our favorite organic and non-toxic clothing brands for kids.
If your child goes to a school where a uniform is required:
- Pact carries basic tees, polo shirts, and cargo shorts that are made from organic cotton in fair trade factories
- Monica & Andy carries polos, Oxford shirts, khakis, and bundles that come in various solid colors and made from organic fabrics.
- Gap has a good collection of tops, pants, and dresses made with both organic and conventional cotton.
- Target has some 100% cotton options as well. It’s not organic, but it’s synthetic-free.
What Can Parents Do About Other Toxins in School?
As mentioned above, there are a lot of different toxins that exist in and around schools that parents can’t necessarily control. So what can you do?
I recommend you first join together with other parents and teachers to join some sort of “Green Council.” There is power in numbers! Once you have a collective, here are some steps you can work with school administrators on. Some of these steps are certainly easier than others, but each one will move the needle toward creating a softer school environment for your kids.
Taking these steps can not only help decrease long-term health effects of the community as a whole, but it can also help kids with asthma, allergies, and developmental disabilities in the long run. It can help increase kids’ productivity and focus, prevent decreases in IQ, and reduce classroom disruptions caused by hyperactive children.
- Ask teachers to open windows more often and/or give the kids more outside time. Indoor air can actually be even more polluted than outdoor air, so encouraging air flow is an easy and free step to take.
- Ask the janitorial staff to switch to non-toxic cleaning supplies. There are plenty of safe all-purpose cleaners on the market these days. And if your school needs to disinfect, Force of Nature offers a great option for businesses. It’s EPA registered and a much safer alternative to products that contain chlorine/bleach, quats, harsh scents, etc. This is one area that’s a relatively easy and low-cost switch to make and can make a big difference for students.
- Similarly, you can lobby to swap out the hand soap in the bathrooms to get rid of things like phthalates and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals.
- Talk to the grounds keepers about discontinuing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in and around the schools and fields. (Or at least use them less and/or switch to safer alternatives.)
- See if you can partner with a local lab to start testing some of the most common and most concerning contaminants. The more information you have about what you’re actually working with, the more you can prioritize and take targeted action.
- When it comes to the cafeteria, there are a lot of things that could be done, including getting rid of additives such as MSG and artificial colors, as well as increasing the amount of organic foods available. Check out FarmToSchool.org for more resources in this area.
- Get to know your local water supply. Everyone has some level of chemical contaminants in their tap water, but what it is how how much there is can vary widely by area. You can look up you local water report, use the EWG tap water database, and/or test the water yourself using a resource like Tap Score. If your school is near a superfund site, military base, and/or chemical manufacturing plant, you will probably want to talk to school administrators about how to filter the water at the school. The tap water in these areas can cause serious problems for the entire community.
- Say no to synthetic turf, which can contain things like lead and phthalates. Here’s a helpful guide to get you started.
- Work with building administrators to make sure there is proper ventilation in place and check up on policies like monitoring for mold growth.
- Do a lead investigation. (A lot of states are failing their school students when it comes to lead.) It could be in the water pipes leading up to the school, the paint on the wall, and more. Once you know where the lead is, you can start making a plan to replace toxic infrastructure. Lead is more likely to be a problem in older schools and buildings.
- Establish “anti-idling” zones for buses and drop-off/pick-up areas to cut down on air pollution from vehicle exhaust.
- Plant more trees on school grounds! They can help clean the air, provide shade, and create a more “nature-y” environment that can help with mental health.
- Hold administrators accountable for procedures and testing that should be done regularly. Carbon monoxide alarm tests, radon testing, keeping track of water leaks—these are all types of things that should be done regularly.
More resources that might help:
- Healthy Green Schools & Colleges
- Center for Health, Environment & Justice’s Green Flag Schools Startup Kit
- The EPA’s “Sensible Steps to Healthier School Environments“
Shopping for non-toxic school supplies is a great step you can take to reduce your child’s exposure to things like endocrine disruptors, allergens, and other harmful chemicals. It can be difficult to buy totally natural, plastic-free, and non-toxic school supplies while also meeting all of the requirements of the school supply list sent out, so just do the best you can!
Even better than buying eco-friendly and non-toxic back to school supplies would be to initiative a “Green Council” with other parents, teachers, and administrators to advocate for cleaner air, water, building materials, cleaning products, and cafeteria food throughout your child’s school.