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The back-to-school shopping frenzy is here. And most of it is wasteful

In a season of replenishment, parents and environmentalists discuss how to challenge this culture – from using secondhand books and uniforms to buying eco-friendly products.

The back-to-school shopping frenzy is here. And most of it is wasteful
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Lamia studies in grade 11, and her new school term begins in about a week. Apart from preparing for a challenging year, she also has a long list of things to buy. Did you know that Skechers is selling two pairs of children’s shoes for $95, and Adidas is offering $27 off on every spend of $81?

Back-to-school (BTS) shopping season is here, which means one thing—it’s time to stock up on school supplies. The shopping frenzy, typically the second largest spending event for parents, behind holiday expenditures, has box, clothing, and office supply retailers—not to mention Amazon—all boasting sales of colorful folders, plastic binders and dividers, markers, staplers, glue sticks, backpacks, shoes, and clothes.

During this event, considered by retailers as a festival, school supplies go for less than $1, laptops that are hundreds of dollars off, and children’s clothing at up to 50% off. On average, a GCC parent spends at least $950 on tech products or school supplies per child annually. 

And drawn in by the array of school supplies at some retailers, most parents overspend. The replenishment nature of BTS means that parents find ways to make it happen, even if they feel the pinch.

“We are encouraged to purchase items that are either unnecessary – though they are portrayed to be much needed—or urged to buy new when the same things from the previous year are in perfect condition. This means we throw out, or put away items in perfect working condition, to replace them with something new or on-trend,” says Giselle Onanian, Dubai-based children’s author and mother of two.

Environmentalists warn that promoting overconsumption during BTS sales results in a spike in waste sent to landfills. The BTS market will reach $34.4 billion this year, up 24% since 2019.

According to experts, in the UAE, the annual waste generation rate at educational institutions is 0.39kg per student per day, 18% of which is organic waste, 78% is recyclable materials, and 4% is residual waste. 

“The average local generation rates are comparable to those reported in the US, although the organic portion in the UAE is significantly lower,” says Rabih El Chaar, CEO of Nadeera Technologies, a social enterprise providing digitally-enabled solutions for waste management. 

After the school year ends, school-related waste increases as consumed goods are disposed of, with paper forming a significant proportion of the disposed stream. “Raw material consumption and waste resulting from the production of school supplies increases during the period leading up to the school year when items such as copybooks, pens, backpacks, and other consumables are purchased,” Chaar adds.

NOT JUST MONEY WASTED

Among all of the sales, bargains and discounts, it’s easy to forget about the environmental impact. It’s not just money that’s wasted. Everything bought during BTS sales ends up either in landfills, incineration, or low-quality recycling—often after a short life. Meanwhile, nearly all electronic waste goes to low-quality recycling, which enters the waste management system. 

“We give children conflicting messages. On the one hand, we try to use less plastic, and on the other hand, we waste half-used stationary supplies because the children want new sets at the beginning of the academic year. School uniforms, which could be reused, are thrown away yearly,” says Rohini Bhalla Gill, mother of a teenager.

Experts warn that multiple pieces of uniform for each child head to the landfill. Also, many uniform items are marketed as easy care or “no iron,” which appeal to time-strapped parents but are made with polyester that does not biodegrade.

Clearly, mass dumping uniforms introduce permanent waste into the environment. But what alternatives do parents have?

According to experts, schools and parent groups could organize swap “sales,” where parents could donate old uniforms to the school or a designated point and are given uniforms in the size they need in return. That way, countless pieces of clothing won’t go to landfills.

“Some textiles can be reintroduced into the market as second-hand goods or used as raw materials for the rag industry, the textile and nonwovens industry, and the paper industry,” says Nico Rau, Managing Director, Middle East of Recycle.me.

Ohanian thinks schools doing away with uniforms, which would cut down on tons of clothes ending up in landfills, and selling pre-loved uniforms are options to tackle this problem.

“These are possible solutions though whether or not that could happen is a question. But uniform, a significant annual expense, is part of the business model. Schools could encourage a uniform buy-back to sell as pre-loved to new joiners, offering a discount to those who pass it on.”

Meanwhile, according to a study, around 320 million books, including school books, are thrown away each year rather than recycled or reused.

“Millions of trees are cut annually to produce paper. A significant amount of this paper goes into the production of textbooks. The majority of these textbooks can be reused,” says Arush Nagpal, a student of Dubai International Academy. “Every year, with the change of the academic year, children throw their used books away, leading to the cutting of more trees.”

Last year, to tackle the problem of used school books going to waste, Nagpal launched ReuseKitab – a free mobile app for donating old textbooks.

It provides a platform where students can buy, sell and donate their books. The app already has over 1500 downloads, with activity reaching its peak during the change of academic sessions. 

It is not whether the environment can absorb the waste, but thinking about the right return, recycling, and using the right products, says Rau, emphasizing holistic product responsibility, would make things much more manageable. “To implement such a solution properly, the foundation must be laid, involving investments.”

 ECO ACTION STEPS

According to a Deloitte study, BTS shoppers seek sustainable products whenever possible and are willing to pay 22% more on average. For retailers, this is an opportunity to gain mindshare with these holistic consumers. And retailers are taking note. There are now a handful of retailers selling eco-friendly school supplies, including pencils, notebooks, and calculators. For example, Kibsons has launched a Treewise range of pencils made from 100% biodegradable recycled paper.

“We all have a huge part to play here—from consumption to education and fighting for a circular economy at every touchpoint. It’s important to be aware of the more nuanced elements of waste and sustainability, not just the idea of simply buying things that we don’t need,” says Sarah El-Hajji, Marketing Director at Kibsons.

People are prepared to pay more for better quality and now demand to know how a product is made and where it comes from, adds El-Hajj. “Pure consumerism and creating demand for disposable items, for example, is unethical.”

Camilla Hassan, mother of three school-going children, says her children need brand new stationery every year. “As a parent, all that I buy is considered for its sustainability, value, and price.” 

“Laptops are another huge expense.” she adds. “Children from Y3 up need laptops unheard of in the UK and other territories. But using laptops should mean less of the paper at least.” 

This year, electronics shop Eros has a laptop exchange program in place. “This helps increase the life cycle of products and reduce e-waste from entering landfills,” says Mohammad Badri, Director, Eros Group.

There is a greater demand for technology purchases during BTS shopping, Badri adds, as traditional BTS supplies are fading. “As digital learning has risen, tech needs are driving big BTS spending and is at its highest this year as every child needs or has to upgrade at least one or more of these devices such as laptops, tablets, smartphones, headsets, chargers, and wearables.” 

According to Badri, and some parents, investing in tech reduces the necessity for traditional school supplies, like paper, pens, and notebooks, therefore making it more environmentally friendly. 

Although studies that tackle metrics correlated with the impact of the upstream supply chain of school supplies on municipal waste management during the duration are unavailable, Chaar says this could change in the coming few weeks. “Nadeera will consolidate data points from different generation sources, providing a holistic perception of current realities. This allows for assessing the criticality of this topic and developing a fit-for-purpose bespoke solution.”

Will a circular economy reverse the negative impact of BTS supplies on the environment? “Definitely,” says Rau. “A functioning circular economy is the key to all disposal-related issues.” 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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