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When it comes to college shopping, it’s good to make solid, non-toxic choices at the beginning so that you don’t have to invest money every year in replacing items. Toxic confession: I had the same plates all four years of school. They were plastic. Why didn’t I replace them? Spare cash was rare, and when it showed up, plates were the last thing on my mind. Why would I replace something I already had when I could pay for things like food and laundry?

Back to school shopping doesn’t end with backpacks and pencil cases: If your kids are on their way to college, there are plenty of goods they’ll need for their dorms and plenty of toxic chemicals they probably want to avoid. For this week’s Tips Tuesday, here are the top 10 non-toxic tips for your college freshman:

Bedding: When buying sheets and pillowcases, be on the look out for these terms:

  • Polyester/cotton blend
  • Permanent press
  • Easy-care
  • No-iron

According to the Sierra Club, these terms are a red light to let you know that your bedding contains formalydehyde. Organic cotton is your best bet when it comes to environmentally friendly bedding options, though you can also avoid formaldehyde by choosing a cotton flannel or cotton jersey fabric. Remember:

Only buy new bedding if you need it. Commercials and catalogs may insist that college kids need brand new everything, but brand new everything can mean lots of packaging and unnecessary waste.

Towels: If you're in the market for new towels, Treehugger recommends seeking out bamboo and organic cotton options. If possible, look for undyed and unbleached towels. Much like with bedding, the most environmentally friendly option is to use towels you already own. If you don't need new towels, skip them for now.

Water: Buy a water filter pitcher. Right now, college bound or not, is the best time to make this kind of purchase: Stores are anticipating the needs of the dorm-dwelling and new-apartment-having student set, so there are great sales usually through August and September on water filter pitchers. For a decent filter at a decent price, the Environmental Working Group recommends a carbon filter. Their water filter guide will help you choose the filter that’s right for you and your budget needs. Get rid of the plastic water bottles, which are not only toxic, but not super budget friendly. Invest in a reusable water bottle. The Daily Green recommends choosing an aluminum bottle with a water-based, non-toxic lining, and avoiding low-grade stainless steel bottles, which can leach metals.

Laundry: Choose a cloth laundry bag or hamper instead of plastic. You can buy a cloth bag, or you can make one: Savvy Brown has a cute, easy DIY laundry bag tutorial and  eHow has a DIY tutorial for a no-sew drawstring bag. Save money and recycle old sheets, t-shirts, or fabric from the Goodwill for your cloth laundry bag project.

When you’re buying laundry detergent, look for plant based detergents, like corn, palm kernel, or coconut oil.  If these choices don’t always fit into your budget, don’t worry: One of the most cost-effective, non-toxic laundry choices you can make is to DIY the extras. Stop buying fabric softeners and stain removers. Replace these often toxic laundry supplies with cheap one ingredient swaps: Swap your fabric softener for a quarter cup of baking soda that you add to the wash cycle. Swap your stain remover with lemon juice or white vinegar—soak your stained clothes in a mixture of water and lemon juice or white vinegar. Let that white vinegar do double duty by adding a quarter cup of it to the wash cycle to prevent static cling.

Organizers: In a tight space, you may need more organizing tools to fit all your stuff, especially when you're sharing that space with a roommate. Try to avoid vinyl based organizers (like over the door shoe organizers, closet organizers, etc.) and look for organic cotton or natural fiber alternatives. If you are using vinyl items, let them offgas outside overnight before you bring them into a dorm, or off-gas them in a closed off room with the windows open if it's not possible to leave them outdoors. You can upcycle various items into jewelry displays, knick knack storage, or shoe racks. If you do choose plastic storage tools, try to pick the safest plastic. Check the number on the bottom, and use this rhyme from Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie: Four, five, one, and two, all the rest are bad for you. 

Kitchen: Purchase non-toxic microwave-safe food containers by choosing containers made out of lead-free ceramic or glass. As a college student, you probably don’t need a full set of several containers. It’s probably smarter, space and budget wise, to purchase one or two containers for microwaving. If you want to use plastic containers, don’t use them in the microwave and make sure you’re picking the safest plastics. Again, check the number on the bottom, and use this rhyme from Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie: Four, five, one, and two, all the rest are bad for you. These materials rules also apply to dishes: Choose lead-free ceramic and glass, or safer plastics.

Shower Curtains: You know that sharp, new shower curtain smell? That’s the smell of chemicals off-gassing. According to Healthy Child, Healthy World, “shower curtains contain a host of other chemicals (Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs) which are linked to central nervous system, liver and kidney damage.” Next time you’re in the market for a new shower curtain, choose a cloth curtain, or one of the PVC-free shower curtains on this list from CHEJ. If you do purchase a new vinyl curtain, open it outside and let it off-gas outside of your home before you hang it up.

Food: It’s great to have some foods handy in the dorm. Here are a few tips to keep it nontoxic:

  • Avoid BPA by choosing foods that are boxed or in glass containers instead of canned foods.
  • Frozen produce can be a great alternative to canned, and it can also be a more cost-effective way to purchase organic fruits and vegetables.
  • For frozen meals, don’t microwave the food in the plastic container: scoop the food into a microwave safe lead free glass or ceramic container instead.
  • If you can, invest a few dollars in a stainless steel peeler and peel your non-organic fruits and veggies.
  • Buy healthy foods in bulk: Nuts, dried fruits, and easy-to-cook, microwaveable grains (cous cous, rolled oats) can be inexpensive and healthy alternatives to processed snacks.

Cheap and easy DIY tools: For most college freshmen, this is the first time they’ll be totally stocking their own cosmetic and cleaning products. When I was a freshman, that meant buying the least expensive, and often most toxic, goods I could find. Luckily, there are simple, and super cheap, DIY replacements for many cosmetics and cleaning supplies.

Here’s an easy list of ingredients to have on hand for simple DIY projects:

  • Olive oil: Mix  one part olive oil to two parts sugar, or salt, for a body scub. You can also use it as a moisturizer and body lotion. Other oils make great one ingredient moisturizers too, especially coconut oil.
  • White vinegar: Add to the wash cycle as a stain remover, or combine with water for an all-purpose cleaner. Prevent static cling by adding a quarter cup of white vinegar to your wash cycle.
  • Sugar and salt: Great for body easy body scrubs, and good kitchen staples to have handy for snacks, coffee, etc.
  • Baking Soda: Combine one teaspoon of baking soda to two teaspoons of water for an acne face mask. Add baking soda to the wash cycle of your laundry for a cheap fabric softener.
  • Glass jars and a spray bottle: Store your homemade cosmetics in lead-free glass jars, and stash an easy all-purpose cleaner in a spray bottle.

Easy (free!) rules: You can minimize toxic chemicals in your dorm by following two super simple rules:

  • Leave your shoes at the door
  • Open a window for at least 10 minutes a day.

Leaving your shoes at the door can cut your lead dust levels by 60 percent, and also reduce your exposure to pesticides, dust mites, and more.  Opening a window for five minutes every day is a simple action that significantly lowers levels of indoor air pollutants.

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