Supply Chain 101: Reusing and Repurposing a Year of School Supplies

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School's out! Here's what to do with all of the book bags, textbooks, papers, and other supplies that are headed home with your child this summer.

School's out for summer, and as kids head home from their last day of class with high spirits about their summertime adventures, along with them comes the contents of their lockers: old backpacks and lunchboxes, textbooks, mounds of worksheets and book reports, and jumbles of school supplies. Although it's tempting to just throw the whole lot in the trash, there are more creative — and more eco-responsible — ways of dealing with the school-time detritus entering your home this summer. Here are some ways to restore, reuse, or recycle the most common of your family's school supplies.



Rather than saving all of the papers that your children bring home, help them choose a few reports or high-scoring tests they're particularly proud of. A recycled-cardboard document storage box, color-coded for each kid and labeled for each school year, works great for storing important papers; recycled binders serve the same purpose in an even more accessible way. If you or your children are particularly crafty, you might consider binding the important papers into a single scrapbook.


Use leftover papers that were only used on one side as an easy, makeshift notepad: with scissors or a paper cutter, cut the sheets into quarters, and then use a binder clip to turn it into your new notepad. The pad is the perfect size for jotting down messages, leaving notes for family members, or making up a quick shopping list. If you've got any paper that was printed on both sides, first mentally thank the teachers for not being wasteful, and then recycle it.

As for all those paintings and drawings your little artistes have created throughout the year, save a choice few in the aforementioned document box, and put the rest to good use: you can turn pictures into greeting cards, or laminate paintings and use them as placemats.

Textbooks and Workbooks


Don't throw away used textbooks, or even put them in the recycling bin if you can help it. Textbooks can be reused through a number of channels. Some organizations, like Textbook Recycle will take old textbooks and either put them back into circulation or recycle them. You can also sell your used textbooks through, or at your local used bookstore. Local libraries, correctional facilities, Native American reservations, shelters, and thrift stores might also accept textbook and workbook donations.


Workbooks that have been completely filled out might not be good candidates for reusing, but they are typically recyclable. Recycling textbooks is a bit trickier because of the glue used in their binding, but you can call your local waste hauler to see if they'll accept any of your out-of-date textbooks that couldn't be donated.

Backpacks and Schoolbags


That backpack that toted homework, textbooks, and miscellaneous show-and-tell items back and forth might be looking a little worse for the wear come June. If it's dirty but in otherwise good condition, clean it up now and put it away for the next school year. You can use a handheld vacuum or the crevice tool of your vacuum cleaner to get the crumbs and dirt from the insides and pockets, then use a sponge and some warm water mixed with a couple of squirts of dishwashing detergent to wash away stains and grime from the inside and exterior. Let the bag air-dry completely. Stains and tears can be hidden with colorful iron-on or sew-on patches, which will also give the bag a new look.


If you think you'll be replacing the bag for the next school year, find other uses for it, such as stashing it in your car to use for shopping trips, toting gardening supplies or beach toys, or using it to contain art supplies or sewing notions (the various compartments are perfect for organizing crafting tools). You can also cut out the pockets to make purses, or even make couch caddies, which can hold remote controls, eyeglasses, magazines, and other writing or crafting supplies — just sew the pockets onto a longer piece of fabric, and drape over a chair or couch handle.

Pencil cases can be used at home to sort and organize art supplies, hair accessories or kids' jewelry, or to organize small items when packing for a trip. Depending on how snazzy the pencil case is, you might consider adding a strap to the case for a near-instant and easy-to-make clutch.

Lunch Boxes


Like school bags, most lunchboxes can be made good as new with a little cleaning. For plastic, vinyl, cloth, or metal lunchboxes, use dish soap, warm water, and a sponge to clean inside and out, and air dry completely with the lunchbox open. To store the lunchbox until the fall, sprinkle the interior generously with baking soda or fill it with crumpled newspaper — both will keep the lunchbox odor-free until it's ready to use (just remember to wipe away the baking soda with a damp cloth when you're ready to use it again).


Old insulated lunch boxes can also be reused to keep food and drinks cool for a trip to the beach, pool, or park, or you can keep an empty one in the car to keep groceries like yogurts or frozen foods cool while you're on the way home from the store.

Writing Utensils and Other School Supplies


Sort through pens, pencils, and markers to see what still works. Working utensils can either be saved for next year or stashed throughout the house — after all, how many times have you needed a pen and been unable to find one? Place extra pens in the kitchen, by the phones, in the car, and in all of your handbags.

Unfortunately, pens and markers are not recyclable. Your best bet? Next time, invest in pens that have refillable or replaceable ink cartridges. Although dried-out markers aren't recyclable, there are certain ways you can reuse them, such as dipping the dried-out tips in water to use as a watercolor pen, or using the colorful caps for mosaics and other art projects.

As for crayons, don't pitch random or broken ones. They can be donated to a recycling program like Crazy Crayons, which uses them to make new, shaped crayons, as well as fire starters, or recycle them yourself by melting crayons into new shapes.


Keep in mind that not every family can afford to outfit their kids with all the school supplies they need each year. Any school supplies in good condition, from backpacks to writing utensils to blank notebooks, would be welcomed by a number of organizations that help get supplies to kids in need. Look for a local organization to donate to, or start your own school supply drive in your community and take the items you've collected to a public school or a local homeless shelter.

Do you have more ways to reuse the year's worth of school supplies? Share them in the comments below!

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

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