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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

First lesson of the school year: Buy less, waste less

As much as I’ve been trying to ignore it, we are coming up on back-to-school time, which means it’s time for one of my least favorite activities: shopping.

I dislike pretty much everything about shopping — stores, parking lots, spending money, conspicuous waste, people. No, no, I like people. Just not when they are shopping.

My kids know I am allergic to shopping, and try to help me out. “Now, Mom,” one of them will say, “this will involve a trip to a mall, but we will only have to go into three stores and it won’t take more than an hour.”

An hour? What a waste of time.

Back-to-school shopping gets me because of the school lists that get sent home: four spiral-bound one-subject notebooks, two three-subject notebooks, four composition books, and index cards, highlighters, Post-it notes of required colors, folders. Then the backpack to haul all the stuff in — a new one each year because they never make it through a school year no matter what quality I buy or how many times I mend it.

And to top it all off, at the end of the year the broken backpack comes home with every one of those notebooks, each with only the first 20 pages used.

We are a nation of wasters. The amount of food we throw away each year is alarming: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 estimate was 133 billion pounds, and I don’t think it’s gone down any. The clothing we buy that we don’t need, the electronic devices we throw away when a newer model appears, the amount of electricity we waste each year — well, it all helps me justify my dislike of shopping. America buys too much stuff.

The easiest way to reduce waste is by buying less to begin with. We can buy and cook the amount of food we will use before it spoils. We can use clothing, electronics, furniture and appliances until they wear out — and maintain and repair them so they last as long as they can. We can be careful not to buy what we don’t need so that we are not discarding what is still serviceable.

And we can certainly buy and use less paper.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates we use about 69 million tons of paper and cardboard a year, and that about a third of it winds up in the landfill.

I don’t think I’ll be buying any new notebooks for a while. After I tear out the first 20 pages of last year’s, I think my son will have more than enough paper for this school year.

I know I’m going to have to go shopping anyway, because the boy keeps outgrowing things. Most clothes I can find in thrift stores, but he’s a runner and is going to need new sneakers at least.

And he’s going to need a new backpack, and if anyone has any advice on how to make one last an entire school year, I’d love to hear it.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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