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Caution: Back to school carbon bump!


Ah, labor day. The end of the summer, and the end of many parents’ blissful summer commutes. Mom walked. Dad took the bus. Now they’re both back in their (family-size) cars shuttling the kids around.

EPA reports (pdf) show that morning drive time traffic jumps up 30% at the beginning of the school year. The report put this in historical perspective:

In 2001, less than 15 percent of students between the ages of five and 15 walked to or from school, and 1 percent biked. In 1969, 48 percent of students walked or biked to school.

There are lot of reasons for the change: the layout of our cities, the amount of stuff kids now take to schools, and the kid-friendliness of local streets (or at least our estimation of their kid-friendliness).

So what exactly is the carbon footprint of our back-to-school commute? For an answer, check out our new handy tool for calculating the carbon footprint from commutes.

The average one-way commute to school is 15 4.2 miles, but often means that mom and data change the mode of their commute, at an average of 15 miles (see update below). Even in a Prius that means 1,900 lbs of CO2 per year. You’d have to replace 18 incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or hang dry a load of clothes every day of the year to balance the impact. A tall order for most.

Add to this equation all the new stuff we’re supposed to buy at the beginning of the school year. We’re already getting bombarded for back-to-school shopping, but we thought we’d get a bit of back-to-school re-thinking done instead. Here are five fun ideas for ways to make your children’s school year a bit greener:

  • Carpool. Stuff the the entire neighborhood’s rascals in the minivan crossover, and resume your own low-carbon walking or public transport routine at least a few days a week.
  • Get kids a water bottle. Not driving related, but a simple way to reduce your footprint.
  • Get a reusable lunch bag. Ditch the paper bags and get something sustainable. Avoid faddish or super cute designs that will age badly for a longer “kid compatible” life.
  • Rally kids to the cause! Are they old enough to walk or bike to school?
  • TerraPass. OK, you’ve done everything else. Now TerraPass the rest.

Got other good ideas for the new school year? Give a shout out in the comments and let’s get a little greener before school starts.

Update: Sorry for the confusion on distances. 4.2 miles is the average trip length to school, 15 miles is the average commute. How much carbon emissions increase depends on how much the back to school schedule shift changes parent’s commuting behavior.

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