Back to school


About this guide

As the summer holidays draw to a close, it's time to gear up for a new school year—new friends, new teachers. Even though school means supplies may be needed, there are ways to avoid the excess and relieve the post-holiday budget.

You may also be eligible for the help with education-related costs of primary and secondary school studies such as school fees, uniforms, books and sport, music or other lessons. Check with your state or territory education department.

Stationery supplies

There's a great temptation, and sometimes pressure, to buy a whole new set of supplies at the beginning of every year.

Work out what you really need. Take a good look around the house for items you already have that can be re-used including pens and pencils markers and rulers.

If you do need new items, think carefully and consider materials, packaging and longevity. Here are some tips to reduce the impact of your stationery purchases.

  • Make a list—and stick to it.
  • Look for products that are re-usable or contain recycled content, especially paper products. Lower impact options are becoming more widely available—look online for stores specialising in ‘eco-friendly’ and recycled school and craft supplies. Avoid notebooks with plastic covers—opt for cardboard instead.
  • Avoid items with unnecessary packaging, as this consumes unnecessary energy and resources. Buy in bulk where you can to reduce packaging and cost, but don't buy more than you'll use.
  • Buy well-made durable items. While some things may seem cheap in the first instance, they may not last as long as you need.
  • Choose non-toxic options when you have a choice—for example, water-soluble glue or water-based paints rather than acrylic paints.
  • Look for natural products—for example, crayons made from soya bean oil instead of paraffin (a petroleum-based product).
  • Label items to avoid losing them, or personalise pencils with pencil charms.
  • Opt for solar-powered calculators. If a battery-powered model is required by your school, use rechargeable batteries. When a calculator is no longer needed, pass it on to a friend or sibling. Check if your school has a newsletter or noticeboard to sell unwanted school items.

Paper and books

Students and schools use a lot of paper, even as we strive to be more paper-conscious and do more activities online.

Paper manufacturing uses natural resources like fibre from trees and is very water-intensive. Much of the paper we use can be recycled and used again. Sending paper to landfill is a lost resource, plus as it decomposes it produces methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. In Australia, our municipal waste receives around 2 million tonnes of paper a year, enough to fill 100,000 semi-trailers.

Here are some ways to reduce the amount and impact of the paper you use and throw out.

  • Re-use your own paper. Write or print on both sides of the paper or use it for artwork or scrap paper. If last year's notebooks are largely unused, rip out the used pages and give the book a new life, or remove the empty pages and turn them into a 'notepad' for yourself.
  • Buy recycled paper and notebooks. The percentage of recycled content can vary from 10% to 100%. Look out for items that contain a high percentage of recycled fibre or contain fibre from sustainably managed sources, such as plantations or sustainably managed native forests. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified products and logo.
  • Recycle your paper and cardboard, either at home or at school.
  • Only print when you really need to. Proof your work electronically before you print. Many schools now encourage students to submit homework and assignments electronically rather than on paper.
  • Find out if your school has a second-hand textbook scheme. You may be able to source books for English texts in second-hand bookshops. Look after books so they can be used in later years or for siblings. Covering books in paper will help keep them in good condition.

School uniforms

It takes a great deal of energy and water to produce clothing. School uniforms represent a high proportion of your back-to-school spending. See if your school has a uniform clothing pool or second-hand shop, or set up a hand-me-down system with other families. You can also donate unwanted items to a charity.

If your school doesn't have a uniform, choose clothes carefully for everyday school wear that will last and that will mix in with existing wardrobe items. There can be great finds in vintage and second-hand clothing stores, and swapping items with friends is another option. Donate clothes that aren't being worn anymore.

Bags and backpacks

If you have a choice in the bag or backpack for your school, look for a durable one that will last many years. Backpacks need to be tough as they often have to carry heavy loads and get quite a beating.

Look for packs made from recycled material or natural material such as hemp. Try to avoid backpacks made from resource-intensive vinyl (PVC), plastics or nylon.

There are packs with compartments to help distribute the weight. Pack the heaviest things in first; the closer they are to your child's back, the less strain they'll put on young muscles.

Walk or ride to school

School mornings can be hectic so jumping into the car can seem like the easiest transport option, but relying on car transport comes at a cost—more traffic congestion, more pollution and more money. In most states, nearly 50% of all school children travel to school by car. If you measure the distance of your commute to school, you might be surprised to find that these trips are less than 3 kilometres—an ideal distance for walking or cycling.

Walking or cycling to school not only saves energy, but will make a significant contribution to the recommended 60 minutes exercise children need each day. Physical activity has a number of rewards: it helps maintain a healthy weight, builds stronger bones and makes children less prone to anxiety or depression. Inactivity is a huge contributing factor for disease and disability.

If your children are at primary school and you live within walking distance, see if your school has a walking school bus. This fun, safe way to get to school involves a group of primary school children walking to and from school with two adults, one 'driving' and one at the back. Socially it's great because they mix with other kids they'd ordinarily only know by sight and make new friends around your neighbourhood.

If your school doesn't operate a walking school bus, you could start your own with other parents. There's lots of information to help get you started:

Tas Travelling to School Tasmanian Government

Vic Walking School Bus VicHealth

States and territories have a range of other resources to support active and safe travel to school:

ACT Ride or walk to school Physical Activity Foundation

NSW Active Travel to School NSW Government

NT Darwin Safe &  Active Routes to School Toolkit (PDF 1.7MB) Northern Territory Government

Qld School travel options Queensland Government

SA Way2Go Government of South Australia

Tas Travelling to school safely Department of Education

Vic Walk to School Victoria Walks

Look out for and participate in the annual Walk Safely to School Day which takes place throughout Australia.

Cycling to school is also a cost-effective means of transport that reduces pollution. Cycling will also build children's skills and confidence as well as provide the opportunity to learn road safety and develop a healthy routine. Talk to your school about participating in the national Ride2School program. Their website has practical advice about riding to school and a range of resources for parents, kids and teachers. 

If you can't ride or walk, public transport is more efficient and has lower costs than individual car travel.

Another option to cut your car costs is to consider sharing the trips to school with other parents by car pooling. It's much more efficient to drive a full car and may take a little pressure off when it's your day 'off'. It will also reduce congestion around school at peak times.

Whether travelling to school by foot, bicycle or by public transport, make sure children are aware of safety issues and give them safety tips so they know and stick to relevant road rules.

Computer savvy

Schools and students mean computers and printer cartridges—often at home as well as at school—and that means power consumption and e-waste. Before buying another computer, consider whether you really need it and how it'll be used. 

If you use a computer mainly for emailing, internet browsing and note taking, you'll need a less powerful one—which uses less energy. Try to avoid being caught in the cycle of upgrading to the newest, latest and greatest. Consider second-hand options—there are plenty of places you can source pre-owned or refurbished computers, laptops and tablets. If you do need a new computer, buy something with sufficient memory that meets your requirements and will allow for software upgrades (requiring greater memory) in the future. If you don't use lots of applications and software with large capacity, consider a laptop or tablet as these usually use a lot less power than a desktop system.

Computers may only be small, but they can churn through power. There are a number of simple ways to reduce power use.

  • When you leave your computer for a short while, turn off the screen to reduce power consumption—contrary to popular belief a screen-saver does not save power.
  • Look for and use automatic power down. This feature puts computers into a 'sleep mode' (or standby) or turns them off after a period of inactivity. Nearly all computers and monitors have this feature—you may have to turn it on yourself to activate it.
  • Turn your computer off at the wall when not in use for a long time, especially overnight. Even when on 'standby' computers and other appliances continue to draw power. Standby power can account for more than 10% of household electricity use.
  • If you have a printer, only turn it on when you need to print.

The e-waste created by unwanted computers is a growing problem in Australia so it's important to re-use and recycle wherever possible. Computers contain a number of toxic chemicals, including lead in the batteries, brominated flame retardants (BRFs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used for coating wires. These toxins can leach into the environment and cause health risks if taken to landfill so unwanted computers or their parts should never be put into your household garbage.

  • If you have an unwanted, working computer, donate it to a friend or charity.
  • Drop off unwanted televisions, computers and computer products such as keyboards, mice and scanners free of charge at recycling services participating in the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme and help to increase recovery of valuable materials.
  • Planet Ark's RecyclingNearYou and TechCollect both list organisations recycling televisions, computers and accessories by location.
  • Recycle used or empty laser and inkjet cartridges by dropping them off at participating retailers including Australia Post. Search Cartridges 4 Planet Ark for drop-off points in your area.
  • You may be able to organise a cartridge recycling fundraiser for your school—look online for companies that do this.

If there are no e-waste services currently in your area, look at re-use options or store items safe from the weather until access becomes available.


Packing a healthy, enticing lunch in a hurry 5 days a week can be a challenge. There's often a strong temptation to opt for easy choices like pre-packaged snack items and 'easy' things, but these come at an environmental and financial cost.

Worse, what the kids don’t eat could end up as landfill and turn into harmful greenhouse gases.

There are a few simple things you can do to avoid food waste and cut down on packaging.


Avoid packing lunches in multiple plastic bags or plastic zip-lock bags. If all that plastic is thrown out every day, it will add up to a lot of plastic waste over the year. Aluminium foil wrapping is also likely to be discarded at school when it can so easily be recycled even when it's covered in food. There are lots of alternatives to plastic lunch wraps including canvas or organic cotton lunch bags and wraps that are PVC-free.

Look for a durable lunchbox. Lunchboxes are available with separate compartments for different food items, eliminating the need for individual wrapping. Investigate the 'cooler' lunch bags which can keep food chilled for up to 8 hours.

It's tempting to rely on snacks that have been packaged up into small, convenient servings, but all that packaging goes straight to landfill. Invest in a few re-usable, sealable containers that you can reuse, or replace packaged snack foods with fruit which comes in nature's own wrapping. 

Get kids involved in choosing their lunch and mix it up—they'll be more likely to eat it, and less likely to toss it out. If you're after some strategies on how to train picky eaters' tastebuds, phase out fizzy drinks and prepare healthy snacks and lunches, have a look at the CSIRO Wellbeing Plan for Kids book for ideas.

Many schools have a composting system—if not, get kids to bring home any food scraps to compost or give pet worms a treat. Better still—talk to your school about introducing some recycling or composting facilities in the playground.


Disposable juice packs are an easy choice for lunches, but they can carry high, longer-term costs—both for your budget and the environment. In the long run, all those juice boxes will cost a lot more than a stainless steel drink bottle and a couple of litres of natural juice for refills: better still, opt for water or milk as packaged juice can be high in sugar.

Try freezing a drink bottle the night before and wrap it in a tea towel—this will keep it cool during the day.

In the classroom

There are a range of ways schools can get involved to take practical action to save money, energy and water. Programs which engage students, teachers, parents and staff in making changes together is a great way to make lasting changes.

To get started on waste issues you could conduct a waste audit to identify current sources and ways to reduce waste, including composting and recycling bins or starting a worm farm to eat up organic waste and establishing a sustainable, edible garden.

To get started on energy issues you could conduct energy efficiency audits to identify current energy use and ways to save, including installing energy efficiency measures like energy-efficient lighting, solar power systems, or shade awnings and ceiling fans as well as ensuring good habits such as turning equipment off when not in use.

To get started on water issues you could conduct a water audit to identify current use and ways to reduce use, including placing signs above taps and bubblers, and installing rainwater tanks or greywater systems.

Most states and territories have a range of energy, water, waste and biodiversity programs to provide practical support to help schools become more sustainable and can help your school get started.

Resources and assistance

RecyclingNearYou Planet Ark

E-waste recycling TechCollect

Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program

Wellbeing Plan for Kids CSIRO

ACT Actsmart Schools program ACT Government

NSW Education resources NSW Government

NT Eco-Schools Australia Keep Australia Beautiful

Qld Queensland Sustainable Schools Queensland Government

SA Sustainable Schools Program Government of South Australia

Tas Resources for Schools EPA Tasmania

Vic Creating sustainable Victorian schools Government of Victoria

WA Sustainable Schools WA Government of Western Australia