An introduction to environmentally-friendly study materials, plus some ideas you might not have considered before.
Studying might not typically be an activity associated with sustainability; think about heavy textbooks being shipped all around the world, millions of disposable plastic pens ending up in landfill once they run dry after having scribbled over stacks of pristine paper. These notes are then barely referred to before themselves ending up in a recycling bin if you’re lucky (landfill if you’re not). However, those aged 16-25–making up a considerable proportion of students worldwide–are much more climate-aware than any other generation, with 95% of 10,000 people in this age group surveyed across 10 countries being worried to some extent about climate change.
Do you want to make sure your study habits aren’t destabilising the environment? Let’s get our heads down into sustainable study mode!
Firstly, think about the surfaces you have available to write or print on. Your default paper choice should be a recycled and non-bleached kind where possible, rather than wastefully made from virgin wood pulp. You can also look for the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) logo on non-recycled paper to at least ensure that the wood for the paper came from a sustainably-managed forest.
If you’re willing to take this further, how about considering paper made from alternative fibres, like hemp, recycled organic cotton, or even straw? These have their own advantages; hemp is quick to grow, even without pesticides, doesn’t require much water, and produces high quality, durable paper suitable for a range of applications. Recycled cotton paper is incredibly strong, taking textile material out of landfill sites, and has the added advantage of displaying rich colours printed with crisp and clear quality. Straw paper is naturally white and doesn’t require any bleaching. Some stationery aficionados might point to bamboo paper as another alternative, but consider where the bamboo is grown in relation to where you are, and whether any habitats have been destroyed to make place for its production before you give it the all-clear sustainability-wise.
One step further is to go old-school and write quick notes on a personal chalkboard; you can make your own quite easily with reclaimed wood and chalkboard paint. A less outdated but still somewhat retro combination is a second-hand whiteboard and a recycled dry-erase pen with refillable ink.
The most technologically-advanced choice would be a second-hand tablet complete with a solar-powered charger, or even a digital notepad/e-reader with an e-ink display that saves electricity as a result of its reduced brightness.
Now that your writing surfaces are sorted, let’s turn our attention to writing tools. You can swap your disposable ballpoint pens for fountain pens–second-hand or recycled, of course!–with converter cartridges easily refilled from larger ink bottles. There’s no need to bother with tricky-to-recycle pre-filled plastic cartridges. Where possible, try and make sure the pens you purchase are made from post-consumer recycled materials or at least easily biodegradable.
If you fear ending up with inky fingers, don’t forget the trusty pencil; a number of leading stationery companies have ranges of pencils made from recycled or FSC-certified wood. Alternatively, you could forgo the forestry issue altogether by opting for woodless pencils–yes, these are a thing, although you might not have come across them before if you’re not as obsessed with stationery as some of us are….
Fancy yourself as a bit of a distinguished design student? Why not treat yourself to a recycled mechanical pencil holder and responsibly-sourced pencil leads?
All things considered, though, don’t feel like you have to go out of your way on a stationery shopping spree just for the sake of sustainability - think about using what you already have first.
Last but not least, let’s look at reducing the negative environmental effects of your study material itself. After all, you’re going to need something to refer to whilst you’re learning.
Firstly, check out which resources you can access for free via your institution. It’s highly unusual these days for your course to not include some kind of access to essential e-books or online journals. E-books have the advantage of editable highlights and annotations, perfect for indecisive note-takers, and you can print out selected pages on recycled paper if truly necessary. Perhaps read your study material on an efficient e-ink display that you’re already using to make notes, or turn your laptop brightness down as far as you can to avoid wasting electricity.
For the books you can’t access for free, you can still buy them sustainably. Whilst it might be tempting to order immaculate copies of everything on your reading list, this is a massive waste of paper, ink, and energy. The exact same titles will no doubt already have been printed, and you can buy these at a fraction of their full price in a variety of places. One of my favourites is World Of Books, https://www.wob.com/en-gb (not sponsored). My university department also had an email list to which students could subscribe, and they’d be notified of more senior students selling their barely-used textbooks. Your university or college might have a similar scheme; sometimes, department libraries will even sell their used books. Make sure that you don’t need a particular edition for your course first, though!
You might also find students selling their books at the beginning and end of the academic year in student Facebook groups - be sure to check these out for a bargain and feel doubly smug about trees spared and money saved.
I hope this article has given you some easily-actionable ideas to make your learning habits more earth-positive. The steps detailed above focus on small changes we can make as individuals, but it’s also worth noting that progress is made when we come together and put pressure on institutions to lead the way forward. Perhaps your college has a sustainability society you could join, or a published environmental policy to critically review. Pushing for structural change is just as important as promoting sustainability on a personal level, after all.