Back to School :
Our guide for sustainable purchases

The start of a new school year is a key moment for both students and parents, carrying a lot of expectations. Of course, we all want the best for our children and spare no expense, but do we consider environment factors when buying school supplies?

Encouraging reuse

As always, the best environmental purchase is the one you avoid. The priority is to maximize the lifespan of items and offer them a second life. Preparing for the start of a new school year therefore begins at the end of the previous year, with the sorting and recovery of reusable items.

The purchase of a school bag is a classic example. Many children change their school bag every year, looking for something new or more trendy. This is sub-optimal when you consider that some Eastpack schoolbags can be warranteed and repaired for up to 30 years after purchase.

As for notebooks, it is important to optimise their fill rate as much as possible. Partially filled notebooks can be reused from one year to the next, or used as draft paper if there are only few pages left. It is also possible to find new products or products in excellent condition on dedicated second-hand platforms such as Beebs - providing an economical and ecological solution for preparing a return to school.

Moving away from linear consumption

There's plenty options of pens to choose from, but we can feel wasteful about the sheer volume purchased each year and their rapid turnover.

The iconic ballpoint pen remains a safe bet for many, but it has an average lifespan of just one year - a third of the theoretical lifespan claimed by the brand BIC.

Even when buying improved options - like orange-barrel bic pens with fine tips whose endurance can reach 3.5 km of line compared to the 2 km of the standard bic - the BIC pen remains in a linear consumption logic: the whole object becomes unusable when its ink tank is empty.

For its big cousin, the 4-colour, the results are ambiguous: despite a theoretical use of up to 8km of line according to the brand, it quickly becomes partially unusable when one of its colours runs out. Unless they buy and manually replace the tanks  (which is an ecologically efficient solution, but still not very widespread), students are left with an incomplete pen that they end up throwing away.

A classic alternative is the fountain pen, which operates in a circular fashion by refilling ink tanks - it however relies on the use of non-refillable ink erasers.

Finally, Frixion pens seem to be the most environmental option: they operate on rechargeable ink tanks, and are easily erasable without the need for disposable erasers.

Is recycled paper more environmentally friendly?

Despite reuse and second hand solutions, it is often necessary to buy first hand paper. In that case, should we always favour recycled paper ?

A recent study in the media Nature Sustainability displays surprising results on recycled paper: it emits 7% more CO2 than virgin paper. This result is explained by the use of biofuels in the production of virgin paper, whereas the energy used in recycling relies on fossil fuels. What's more, some recycled paper is imported from abroad, adding to its carbon footprint.

Should we abandon recycled paper in favour of virgin paper?
For one thing, the production of biofuels is limited and already heavily sollicited by many industries. Secondly, CO2 emissions are only one of many environmental issues (there are 9 earth boundaries in total). Widening the scope of the analysis, recycled paper is significantly more virtuous in terms of wood, water, energy and land use. Paradoxically, the use of recycled paper therefore appears to be slightly more carbon intensive, but more sustainable and environmentally sound. However, the paper recycling industry in France needs some real efforts to increase its capacity and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

Is digital technology a solution or an ecological mirage?

School digitalization is regularly touted as a miracle remedy for reducing our use of paper. However, in addition to the pedagogical risks associated with screen-based learning, digital technology also has significant environmental impacts that should not be underestimated.

Let's take the case of teaching tablets, which have recently been tested in secondary schools, to assess their environmental impact compared to paper:
Firstly, while the energy required for usage is low, the energy required for manufacturing is considerable. In terms of CO2 emissions alone, a very high critical threshold must be reached for a tablet to emit less CO2 than its paper equivalent.
The ADEME suggests a threshold of 10 300-page books to make a tablet more environmentally viable than its paper equivalent. We would therefore need to expect a long life for these tablets, combined with a high volume of daily use, to make them a less carbon-intensive alternative to paper.
Secondly, while the savings in paper resources are interesting, the additional use of rare metals in the manufacture of educational tablets raises particular questions. The OECD warns that demand for certain metals could increase by a factor of 4 to 6 within 20 years as our digital consumption explodes.

What impact can all these efforts have?

To quantify the impact of all these actions, we have estimated the carbon weight of a list of standard supplies and a list of ecological supplies. Each list consists of 1 school bag, 8 notebooks of 96 pages, 1 pencil case of 100g and 4 pens.

Our calculations use the following assumptions :
- Use the school bag for 10 years instead of 3
- Reduce the use of new paper by one third by reusing and buying used paper
- Use the pencil case for 5 years instead of 2
- Use refillable pens (Frixxion type) instead of disposable pens.

On the basis of these assumptions, we can see a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of school supplies, with a total reduction factor of almost 2.5. We can also see that, despite the efforts being required at every level, some actions have a greater impact than others. The choice of bag and optimization of its lifetime have a crucial impact on the carbon footprint of supplies. Much of the work would be done if we could get closer to the ideal 30-year life of a bag - or even a third of that would be an achievement!

However, we should not neglect the effort that goes into paper and pencils, despite their lower weight. Even so, they are a simple daily action that is ideal for raising pupils' awareness of circular consumption from an early age.

Why we push for a Universal Carbon Score

About Welow

Welow is a pioneer in automated environmental measurement. Serving major distributors such as ManoMano, Geev and Fairytale, Welow's API uses product information supplied by the client to automatically establish eco-scores, providing end consumers with information about the environmental impact of the products they buy.

As recommended by ADEME, Welow's methodology is based on LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) and incorporates the 16 PEF indicators into its eco-score.