Green Mom Culture Shock: Back to School

September 3rd, 2008

As a seasoned mother of a six-year-old and a nearly two-year-old, I thought I was past the point where much could shock me. But then school started.

And suddenly I went from the friendly confines of the Green Mom blogosphere to the public school system, where teachers routinely send home “supply lists” containing environmentally unfriendly items such as (gasp) plastic ziplock bags and Purell hand sanitizer (2 bottles, please!), where students use thousands of styrofoam lunch trays each day, and where fossil fuels are burned sending children to school on buses that drive past shuttered schools near the bus stops.

I feel like a creature in a strange land.

How’s it going in your world?

— Lynn

Correction: This post originally stated that the styrofoam trays were thrown away. That is incorrect. They are re-used and then after they break are sent to the incinerator.

17 Responses to “Green Mom Culture Shock: Back to School”

  1. Beth Terry on September 4, 2008 1:45 am

    Sometimes I feel like an alien because I don’t have kids and don’t have to deal with this crap. I feel for you. The funny thing is that the most plastic I still buy is for my kitties, who are kinda my version of kids. Cat litter in a plastic bag. Cat food cans lined with plastic. And cat food cases covered in plastic. And despite the natural wool and wood toys we provide them, they’ll always find the one piece of plastic in the house to munch on.

    Anyway, it does sound like times have changed from when I was a kid. Purell hand sanitizer? Ha! We developed our immune systems by picking our noses and wiping them on other kids. And the only disposables in the cafeteria were the milk cartons and paper napkins. As I recall, the trays, plates, bowls, and utensils were all durable. And that was public school in the 70’s.

    Are we the same age? Was your experience like mine?

    Beth, you may not have kids, but you have so many Green Moms who love your blog, Fake Plastic Fish, that they probably think of you often, as I do. EVERYTIME I am faced with a plastic dilemma, I think of you! And yes, my experience was like yours. And your comments made me laugh.
    — Lynn

  2. Beth Terry on September 4, 2008 1:48 am

    Oh, and the straws were disposable too. But they were made from biodegradable paper! And truth be told, I hated them because they got soggy before you were finished. I loved when the school switched to plastic straws. Ironic, huh?

  3. Diane MacEachern on September 4, 2008 7:08 am

    Honestly, I think these teachers’ lists are getting longer because the teachers have access to so few school supplies themselves! That’s a sad commentary on the priority that education should be in community, state and federal budgets. That being said, there’s no reason to buy all the stuff on the list. I always purchase what seems to make sense (so I’d leave hand sanitizer off the list), and wait for my kids to tell me if they’re missing something they need. The hand sanitizer issue would be a good one to bring up with the PTA. Sure, teachers are worried about getting sick. But why not just have kids wash their hands in the morning and in the afternoon? Seems like a better solution. (Besides, what about the kids whose parents can’t afford all this stuff?)

  4. Mindful Momma on September 4, 2008 7:59 am

    OMG – I remember those paper straws!! Thanks for the trip down memory lane Beth!

    Diane – I too wonder about the kids who can’t afford it all. In fact, I end up buying extra supplies to help cover the kids who can’t. I would rather see a pared down supply list for all kids and a list of donation requests for those who can contribute more.

  5. Mother Earth on September 4, 2008 8:29 am

    I have been the mom who couldn’t afford what’s on the list, who picked supplies from a community bin in the social workers office and who had to write a reminder note to the teacher to tell her that her “please send” was not something I could contribute to – only to have her think less of me as a human being because I was fiscally challenged. I think the worst situation was when my child brought in one box of kleenex instead of 2 and didn’t get a sticker next to her name. Mom – she said, why isn’t one box enough? I will say this, I decided to start the year off with a gift to the teacher usually in the form of fresh fruit – call it bribery but somehow this paved the year and open the doors to communicating, made it a tad more personal. Instead of giving items I offered my time in the classroom, and so when I needed help because of a challenge at home I had earned my way to their understanding. I found I could then slip in my
    “different and unique” perspectives about things and have their compassionate listening.

    One year at the end of the year a classroom stash of supplies filled 4 grocery bags !! We donated the items to a local organization it made me wonder – do we NEED all of this ?

  6. Jennifer Taggart on September 4, 2008 11:26 am

    I experienced the same culture shock yesterday at my son’s brand new kindergarten. I was “that mom” expressing (under my breath) shock at being asked for plastic Ziploc bags. After being admonished by my husband not to embarass my child, and being heavily solicited for everything from art supplies to Kleenex (not one box in the classroom) because of budget cuts, I calmly approached the teacher after the “welcome parents” speech.

    I asked her if it would be okay if I substituted some greener, less toxic options from the list. I was nice – I just said we are trying to be greener at home, and I don’t use plastic bags or antibacterial soaps.

    You know what? I met a kindred spirit in that teacher – she responded with “I only clean with Dr. Bronners, but I can’t put that on the list because of the other parents . .”

    So, my culture shock has subsided a bit since I know I can stealthily work in my greeness . . .

    Jennifer Taggart
    Smart Mamas Do It All Naturally

  7. Anna (Green Talk) on September 4, 2008 11:38 am

    I have to agree with Diane about budgets. Even in the middle of the year, we are asked to replenish the teachers’ supplies.

    This year I went into school and offered all my board games which are in great shape to learn that they had already bought them. Perhaps, they could reach out to parents to supply things that already in their homes that are not used rather than spend the money buying new.

    My experience is similar to Beth’s. The hand sanitizer just gets me.

  8. Stephanie - Green SAHM on September 4, 2008 3:43 pm

    My school had a pretty good list too, but I like that they just told us to contribute what we could. I’m sure they’ll have too much of some things and too little of others. My hope is that they will find uses for the excess and just let parents know where shortages are. It’s rough for teachers these days where the schools can give them so few supplies.

    But there’s no way I’d send hand sanitizer! Soap and water are good enough for getting hands clean. People are so obsessed these days with keeping germs away that it drives me nuts.

  9. MamaBird/SurelyYouNest on September 4, 2008 4:33 pm

    I hear you on shrinking school budgets, and as a former public school teacher, I also agree with the concept that schools should be aware of financial constraints at home.

    I think a lot of the requests from teachers come from a place of convenience and habit — just like with every one of us with regard to whatever eco-sins we have. My kid’s teacher asked for paper cups and plates but was thrilled to get a couple sets of reusable ones from me as an alternative (note that that choice cost me more money, as is often the case with the more enviro choice – she may not have been comfortable asking for that up front). And you never know when your school or teacher will surprise you – that same teacher overheard me talking about compost with a friend in the hallway and eagerly asked me if I’d set her up with a worm bin cause she loved hers in her old school! So she’s going to lead me down that path. I do have to say that our neighborhood and school in general are pretty green, though, since we are all walkable to our little school and the school itself is small. I think the larger the scale of things, the harder it is to make careful (instead of expedient) choices. Another reason to have small schools!

  10. MC Milker on September 8, 2008 11:27 am

    That’s interesting that you say that, Lynn…it is a shock moving to “real” school. Our preschool was pretty crunchy and the move to the supposedly crunchy grade school that turns out not to be was a real shock!

  11. Alex Johnson on September 9, 2008 8:40 pm

    Those “supply lists” that get sent home can be a real drain on the environment, not to mention the household budget. I think what we need from schools is some green leadership, coupled with a healthy degree of restraint. I know my two children feel pressured into getting whatever their peers are getting. This makes it tough on us parents who are then forced to make tough decisions as to what gets excluded from those much-dreaded “supply lists”…

  12. Sue on September 11, 2008 5:40 am

    Each year we get nearly the same list of additional school supplies above the normal items needed for learning, such as pencils and notebooks etc. I asked my son if he used the hand sanitizer or plastic ziplock bags and turns out they didn’t-to his recollection. So this year we opted out of the extras and sent in items that the PTA requested like large white plastic bottles for making a terrarium (eco sin or educational learning device?).

    These lists are perfunctory and I’m not sure the teachers are to blame. It looks like a blanket request, at least for the two schools my kids attend.

    Good Luck as you begin this exciting adventure in our educational system.

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