The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 31, 2009

Beth’s Big Back to School Binder Debate

You wouldn’t think that 3-ring binders would be the topic of intense debate within the green blogging community, but it turns out they have become a symbol of a much bigger discussion: the pros and cons of buying new “green” products vs. re-using older products that might not be as green. It’s a debate I constantly have with myself, and generally I end up on the side promoting less consumption, less purchasing of new stuff, less less less. Except when I think the re-used option could be harmful to health (plastic food containers, for example) and then I quickly jump on the new bandwagon.

Anyway, last week, blogger Siel Ju of Green LA Girl posted a short article about Sustainable Group’s [Now called Guided Products] Green Back to School Kit. The kit includes binders, notebooks, and other supplies made from plastic-free, recycled materials.

Blog Lighter Footstep takes issue with these products. In his article, “5 Ways to Green Back-to-School (And It’s Not this “Eco” Supply Kit)” blogger Chris Baskind criticizes Guided Product’s offerings in favor of used school supplies. He then goes on to list 5 really great ways to lower your “back to school” impact.

Green LA Girl responds to Lighter Footstep with her much longer, comprehensive analysis of the new vs. used binder debate, advocating support for green businesses and for the Rebinder products in particular. In her article, “When ‘Green’ Bloggers Help Greenwash,” Siel suggests that Lighter Footstep is actually helping non-eco companies greenwash their products by refusing to support new products from companies that are truly green.

Well, here I am in the middle seeing both sides of the equation. Buy used supplies. GOOD! Buy biodegradable, recycled supplies. GOOD! Except for one thing. In this particular binder example, many used binders are covered with PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride.) BAD. Kids chew stuff. PVC in child’s mouth. BAD. (See the bottom of this post for info on a free downloadable guide to PVC in school products.) And also, if we don’t support greener products, all we’ll have is more of the toxic crap, right? But greener products might be more expensive and out of the reach of some families. BAD. Oh, it’s all so complicated.

So, in the interest of fairness and healthy debate, I’m going to present you with 3 binder options I’ve come across in the last few months.

I want to hear your opinions, pros and cons, about each of the 3 choices. Please rank your choices 1 – 3 with 1 being the choice you like the best.

CHOICE A: Guided Products’s ReBinder Back to School set

* Comes packaged plastic-free with paper tape.

* Kit includes 1 ReBinder 3-ring binder, 1 binder pocket, 8 binder divider tabs, 2 types of CD sleeves, 1 8×10 lined notebook, 1 5×8 unlined notebook, 1 presentation folder, 1 PLA badge holder, and 2 bio-based pens made from FCS wood or organic cotton cellulose & non-GMO grapeseed oil.

Eco Features:

1) Plastic-free
2) All paper/cardboard materials are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
3) Binders, pockets, & covers contain 100% recycled material with 85% post-consumer content.
4) Notebook paper contains 100% post-consumer fibers.
5) Binders are assembled by disabled workers in the AbilityOne Program.
6) My favorite feature… the metal rings can be easily unscrewed and reused. Guided Products sells replacement covers so the rings never have to be replaced.

Read more about Guided Products’s binders or place orders via their web site.

Stop and Think:

1) More expensive than reused binders.
2) Uses more resources and energy than reused binder.

10/13/09 Disclosure: As of today, I have become a Guided Products affiliate, which means that I receive a small percentage of sales of Guided Products items purchased through this web site.

CHOICE B: Naked Binder Plain & Project Binders

Shipped with zero plastic packaging.

Includes 2 Project Binders with spine wrap made from 100% cotton & water-based glue and 1 Naked Binder.

Eco Features:

1) Plastic-free
2) Board contains 100% recycled content with a minimum of 97% post-consumer fibers.
3) Materials sourced and manufactured in the U.S. Recycled paper content comes from Connecticut. The board is manufactured in Chicago and the binders are assembled in Des Moines, IA.

Stop and think:

1) Board content is not Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
2) Cotton spine wrap is not certified organic.
3) Metal rings are not detachable.
4) More expensive than finding a used binder.

Read more about Naked Binders and place order here.

CHOICE C: Beth’s Used Plastic Binders

Seriously, I’ve been taking your advice and cleaning up my clutter. I’ll be taking hauling big bags of stuff that hasn’t been used in over a year to Goodwill or to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse where teachers and artists come to stock up on used supplies.

Here are 7 plastic (some covered in PVC) binders that will be leaving my house unless any of you want them. As you can see, they are not pristine but definitely usable.

Eco Features:

1) Less impact to reuse than to buy new.

Stop and Think:

1) Some covered in PVC. May not be a problem if used by an adult who doesn’t put it in his/her mouth.
2) Does not support sustainable businesses.


Want to know more about PVC in school supplies? The Center for Health, Environment, & Justice has created a new downloadable Back to School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies, which will be released to the public on Tuesday, August 4.

The guide is fantastic and covers everything from binders and notebooks to clothes, electronics, lunch boxes, and a host of other products. It includes a comprehensive guide to suppliers as well as general rules to keep in mind. Check the site on August 4 to download the guide.

So, what do you think? Those are the choices I have to offer. Which would you choose?

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Etsy handmade and vintage

I only post ads for companies I patronize myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

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I’d like to ask a question, if I may?
At the moment I use alot of plastic sleeve thingys (not sure of their correct name.) that hold sheets of A4 paper, with me? Where can I get a plastic free alternative, please? I have been looking and keep getting your website. Thought you might know.

Joomi Lee

All of these responses indicate the adage, “Different strokes for different folks.” I have bought one binder from Goodwill before but only because it was half off and then it ended up costing me as much as a brand new binder would have at the local Dollar Tree store. Sometimes Goodwill is more expensive than a store like Walmart or one of the discount department stores and/or dollar stores. I have no children so have no worries about someone chewing and choking on the plastic covers. I also have no pets. I am known to reuse old empty binders that… Read more »


I make ACEO/ATC collector’s binders and use the Wilson Jones ones for the ones with my art work on them as they are Kraft paper with a finished edge.. I use the Rebinder ones on the DIY ones I sell. I wrap the DIY ones in muslin and use papers on the leaves to hide the edges. This creates a cloth surface for the customer to decorate. They can stamp, collage, whatever to make it their own. As I sell to both artists and art collectors, I sell an equal number of both. The binders are fantastic and sturdy! You… Read more »

Beth Terry

Sounds like a great idea, Cyndee. Do you have a link to your store so we can see what you’re describing?


Wow, thanks for asking, Beth! Here is the link to my DIY album:

Here are some of the ones I’ve made (second, third, and fourth photos) in the listing:

etsy is an artists website that has hand made, vintage, and supplies for artists

Beth Terry

Your customized ones are beautiful. You should send the pix to Rebinder to show them!I sure wish I could find a plastic-free alternative to the photo pages.


Thanks tons! I had fun with them. I have two that I just finished and am ready to mail out, both customs. One has a fairy on it and fairy quotes and the other has bunnies and bunny quotes :-)

I don’t know of any plastic substitute that is acid free and archival safe for this type of thing. I’ve been looking, believe me. And unless we went to glass which is prohibitive for oh so many reasons, we’re kinda stuck until technology catches up with ALL of our green needs :-)

ken james

I just wanted to let you know that since your post, Naked Binder has been using FSC certified board for all the binders, folders and tab dividers. While we do advocate reuse first, if you have vinyl binders, you may find that the useful life of that binder is not that long (even with the standard duct tape fix). To insure our products would last we have had the Naked Binders tested to 250,000 flexes without fail. That is 34 years if you use it 20 times a day. It may cost more upfront than vinyl, but you won’t be… Read more »

document binders

I would go for choice No 1 as it is more environment friendly than other 2 choices,provided we utilize our trees and forest properly and sensibly.The other reason is my nephew tried to chew the re-usable plastic folder he almost choked himself.We called and ambulance and they provided him required treatment ,but that was horrible experience for me..So i would go for No 1 in anyhow.


Great debate Beth, Interesting subject for me because I worked marketing binders and other school supplies for Avery-Dennison for a number of years. One of the issues that manufacturers face is the fact that binders are a commodity product. The margins are terrible, many times binders are almost a loss leader. This leaves the traditional (read big) manufacturers in a bit of a quandary. A typical school binder sells for a few bucks. An Eco-binder sells for at least twice as much (often more). And why is there this margin pressure? It comes down to large retailers who also use… Read more »


Binders seem to always be readily available at thrift shops and yard sales, and they're very affordable. If you don't like the PVC or the color, couldn't you decoupage the binder? Might be fun to get pictures from old magazines and adhere with non-toxic glue.


I'd choose Option D- a sustainable school pack from It has a rebinder plus demonstrably sustainable set of supplies including a spiral notebook, filler paper, pen, #2 and color pencils, a highlighter and ruler. All fun, colorful and Earth-friendly


I would choose option C. It doesn't make sense to me to buy new when I already have the item at home. Also I feel both binder options A and B are ugly.

mary Hunt

You brought back memories of making our own supply box via an old cigar box with an inch wide hole in one end to stick in your ruler – that's the only way it would fit.

Making your own folders sure raises the bar.


How about a 4th option…
Sew a cloth cover out of some cool fabric your child loves. Slip it off and throw it it the wash when it gets dirty. You could even use a favorite old clothing item. Add a pocket on the spine for pen/pencils, etc. You can make it a totally custom binder cover.
"Add a dangling chew toy for those who haven't grown up yet"!

Cousin Yellowstone

I face a similar dilemma when it comes to pens. I find countless pens while out walking, and am able to avoid buying new pens by using the pens I find buried in the mud and grass. However, this means not giving my economic support to the manufacturers of refillable pens. I intend to continue using other people's discarded pens and binders, but I respect the efforts of people who purchase eco-friendly school/office supplies. Please don't enter me in your drawing. I rescued many discarded binders from the trash at my previous workplace, and even after giving away several boxes… Read more »

Lynn Blevins

A is my choice for the long term. The components of this product can continue to have a life even after the product has finished it original job (cardboard can be recycled or composted and metal spine/rings can be used over and over again or recycled as scrap metal if they become damaged). This ability to easily remove the cardboard (considered a biologic nutrient in cradle to cradle design) from the metal component (non-biologic nutrient) is key to keeping binders out of landfills since each piece can be composted and/or recycled separately from the other. If they remain bound, the… Read more »


For two years I have had a "no-buy back-to-school" policy. Whenever my kids receive a box of crayons or colored pencils for a gift, I put them in a box in the basement marked "school supplies" (we already have more than enough of these things on our art table). When (and if) I get a supply list from school, I rummage in the box to find what we need, sharpen and send already-used pencils and re-use the same pencil box my son has had since kindergarten. I do feel a moment of guilt when all the kids line up in… Read more »

Tammy B

i'm going with a, b, then c. i try to keep plastic away from the kidlets as much as possible, but never even thought about binders! they wouldn't chew on them but what about leaching from heat, etc? i think they would like either a or b because they could decorate them as they want, not be slaves to what is offered for their demographic (a bonus for mom). i do like the way a has the removable mechanism.. i think we'll donate the used binders we have. thanks for the thought provoking subject!


I like A, B, and C in that order. I also think that giving the binder to Goodwill would not be so bad because whoever buys them used would probably just have bought a plastic binder brand new and by using your new binder you can influence the people around you to be aware of environmentally friendly options.

I am about to start grad school and so I'm sure I could find good use for all the items in the giveaway. Im gonna email you my info also so its private.



Do they still make those binders that have a denim-like fabric glued onto a cardboard cover? I loved using those in school. I got to draw all over them and customize the graphics with markers. The inside had my class schedule printed on paper.

Aren't those a good choice for kids in school? Durable and non-toxic!


Option A:My first hesitation arises because of the flimsiness of the materials. Yes, I abhor plastic. However, I'm a high school senior, and my binders get put to the test. In fact, the typical plastic binders (like those in Option C) that I used in middle school used to last only a few months. I now shell out for the $30 binders (yes, $30 each) that, while plastic, have not yet broken on me, and I've used them for years. While I love that these binders and folders don't have plastic in them, I can see myself having to buy… Read more »

Jennifer Taggar, TheSmartMama

Beth – Please don't enter me in the giveaway. I vote for re-using what you got as long as you can. So I guess I vote for C. But, in terms of PVC, it can have phthalates, which are mobilized primarily by mouthing although they can also offgas, and also lead or cadmium. If the PVC is stabilized with lead, the lead is available for pickup at the surface – and can then be transferred by the hand to the mouth. In other words, lead can be ingested from a PVC lead stabilized binder without mouthing. Lead doesn't like being… Read more »


The Sustainable Group also offers custom printing, so they don't have to be plain & "ugly"


Don't include me in the giveaway. I'm still chortling about the adult who does not chew on binders. Maybe you should include also who does not have pets who chew on plastic?
We re-use binders for a variety of work organizing purposes, but ocassionally need to buy new pretty ones to submit to the court for trials. We never see those again, and I doubt they get re-used. Something to think about – in that context would eco-options make sense?


I choose A, B, and C — in that order. I understand the arguments for trying not to purchase new products, but I love the ability to use my spending dollars to support companies with the kind of business practices I like. I really like Sustainable Group's business model: provide you with metal binder hardware that you only need to buy once and then let you replace the cover as needed with a product made from 100% recycled fibers. Naked Binders are also making an excellent effort to be sustainable and healthy: they avoid using toxins in manufacturing, they are… Read more »


Hello, I like the cotton binders, I think that would be great too if they had removeable rings like you said and the cover could be replaced. I too use and reuse and (gasp) tape up and reuse the PVC binders. I have two kids and they stop chewing on things about 18mos – so for a back to school set, you won't need to worry about that. I really like the idea of the first set – I must admit – I think a little leaf print in soy based ink or something like that would really make the… Read more »


I vote for C first, then A. Since I'm subscribing to the "Buy Nothing in August" Challenge I must vote for C. School supplies are allowed to be purchased, but as I have binders from last year, I will not even buy the ones from A this year. Perhaps next year, or if I win….

Melanie Turner

I'm coming at this one from a different angle. I work for a sustainable print company that has been selling Sustainable Group's products for some time. Unfortunately, I work from home (1500 miles from the shop), so I haven't had the opportunity to handle Sustainable Group's binders firsthand. I have promoted their rebinders to a lot of our customers and on my own private blog as well because of the company's core philosophies and mission. And I wasn't aware that they work with the Ability One Program, so that just gives them another thumbs up in my book. I would… Read more »

John Costigane

Hi Beth,

'C' Reuse is definitely first choice from the Zero Waste viewpoint.

'A' would be a future purchase when a new binder is required, the more sustainable the better.


I really regret having used the phrase "teaching moment" twice. Oh well.


I'm with you on the "don't buy things to save the planet" argument. BUT I have found one thing that should be added to the "pro" list of new eco-friendly school and office supplies: the opportunity to serve as a "teaching moment." Many people will comment on any unusual office supply. That gives you a chance to say, "Thanks! It's made from X, which is great because of Y." A teaching moment, as they say. I have a bright yellow Lamy Safari fountain pen which often draws comments. I always say "Thanks! One day I added up the number of… Read more »


As someone that has finished high school and now is in college, I know quite a bit about binders. My mom HATED buying me binders every year but she had to, because the ones we had bought the year before were utterly destroyed. I don’t know if it’s just me or what but I KILL binders. If it can be broken, I break it. Not that I’m in college, I try to use folders more, but binders are useful for classes like Chemistry that have a lab too. Keeping this in mind I rated the choices: 1)A. After checking out… Read more »

Amy K.

I don't have kids, or a need for office supplies myself. I have been going back-to-school crazy this year, buying supplies for a local organization that puts together backpacks for homeless and low income kids every summer. I have to admit – I'm going for most-bang-for-my-buck rather than environmental considerations. At Walmart this morning, the cheapest spiral notebooks (15 cents each) were FSC labeled, mixed source. Equivalent notebooks from recycled paper were $1 each. I bought 10 cheap ones. I've spent $60-$70 on backpacks, crayons, markers, pencils, erasers, pens, rulers, and folders this year. I didn't put together full backpack… Read more »

Anna (Green Talk)

Don't enter me in your contest. I opt for #C because I agree that it is wasteful for people to buy new if they don't need to. In addition as a mother of 4, I can tell you that kids don't chew on their binders but more on their pens. Last year, we brought Terracycle's recycled notebooks from Office Max. I think it was Rebinder or one like it that was twice the price and would fall apart in a heart beat if you take in and out of a back pack. It was way too thin. If I recall,… Read more »

Lara S.

I think I'd go for "C", and spend the money in green paper to put IN the binder. I use binders for storing papers, but I find them uncomfortable to bring to college to me. I just don't like the rings. Right now I use paper that's been printed on one side, for college. It soothes my conscience but it's not comfortable at all. I later have to glue the tips of the papers together so they don't get lost, sometimes I staple them but then I feel kind of guilty. It's a mess.When I was in high school I… Read more »


I would definitely go with Choice C- It drives me nuts that my compnay goes through binders like water. They use to have a surplus system that would resell them, but I guess it isn't that important anymore. I would venture to guess that we throw away enough binders to supplie each kid in the Greater Seattle Area with a nice binder. And then my compnay gives its employees a "KLeen Kanteen" style water bottle that proclaims they are going green. Shheeeesh!


C – Period. I agree with the ugliness factor (I'm a middle school teacher, and I can tell you exactly what happens to the poor kid who shows up in cardboard on the first day, and it's not inspiration). I'd take your 7 binders, and cover them like this tutorial I wrote: I'd use some of the really sweet fabric I have laying around anyway, or an old pair of blue jeans, with the pockets and belt loops and everything, and make it totally one of a kind. OOOH! You could even use a belt to make a carry… Read more »


Here's the thing. I'm all for supporting green businesses, but I think you should support green businesses for when you truly need something new. I bought several 100% recycled paper notebooks this year, because I didn't have any extra notebooks lying around. If you have old binders lying around, it seems wasteful to buy new. Anyway, don't enter me in your give away because I'm not in need of binders right now, but if it were me I'd choose C, then B, then A. Mostly because A seems to include a lot of other junk that I don't really need.… Read more »

Natural Mamma

I prefer the binders in A and B equally since they support eco businesses. I understand the reuse principal and think it is valid for a lot of purchases. In this case I think A and B would make a bigger splash with the kids because they are new and different.


I would choose C, B, then A.As a teacher, I use a lot of binders for many purposes. All of my binders are re-used! I pick them up at the thrift store or from my students at the end of the school year. As Farmer's Daughter commented, the students will throw them away! I have handed out binders to students who need them because I usually have many extras. I like the eco-friendly options for binders though and once my plastic ones are no longer of any use and I can no longer get used ones, then I would consider… Read more »


As a parent and a teacher, I would opt for the reuse of old binders regardless of what they are made of. Most children who are old enough to us a binder are also beyond the age to put them in their mouths. I would take that savings and purchase other recycled items such as filler paper and composition books. I have spent a great deal of time cleaning out all the crap in my home so it freaks me out a little to just go out and buy even more crap. And Elle knows I am an office supply… Read more »


Last thing I need is binders when I have a FedEx retail store and a Office Depot (with their voluminous dumpsters) nearby. Ring binders often end up in the garbage because people see the plastic and metal and don't know what to do with the combination when they are ready to heave them.

I like the "Stop and Think" you use for evaluation. I wish that would catch on with every product but, then again, what vendor would want to have a shopper stop and think about a purchase?

Beth Terry

Hi everyone. Wow. Well, thanks for educating me about what kids put in their mouths. Although I have to say that when I was a kid, I watched my friends chew on all kinds of stuff and so did I. But probably mostly pencils and pens. froghair — The FSC does certify products made from recycled content. Their FAQ says, "Recycled Material FSC has defined categories of recycled material, procedures used to verify the level of postconsumer content and how this may be included in FSC claims or labeled products. See the CoC Standard FSC-STD-40-004 for details." Also, as to… Read more »


If I got my hands on binders with detachable rings, I'd be able to make really great covers and then I wouldn't want my white plastic binders anymore. I'm so shallow.


I'll take ALL your WHITE binders. I'll pick them up from your front porch if you tell me when to come get them.

I used to create my own binder covers by ripping off the old ones and attaching "artistic" new ones with duct tape. Unfortunately, they were always ugly. Then one lucky day I found a curbside box full of empty white binders and my organizational life changed.

mother earth aka karen hanrahan

please don't include me in your give away ….i so don't need school supplies and have a box of "c" to give away myself. How I hoarded school supplies over the years is beyond me…but there it is.

I just wanted to comment on the brilliance of the resuable metal rings…fabulous feature.

I also think mainstream shopping doesn't even begin to offer these options…at least not what I've seen. To be green you also have to investigate and sort out all this information on-line and I personally find it overwhelming

Ever so glad to have you as a resource


I took a long time thinking about this. But my choice is A, C, then B. A is great if you need new stuff, and if you are going to be flaunting your eco-friendly gear to a lot of people a.k.a. a college campus. It will hopefully hook (only AFTER the students are done mangling their own binders. I'd hope they wouldn't just throw away the plastic and buy new). It's all recyclable, friendly, reusable, and supports a community. I might buy these for next year. B bothers me because it uses cotton, and the cotton isn't certified as environmentally… Read more »


Even though I'm going back to school, I already have everything I need (which I guess counts as a vote for C, actually). I reuse binders when I need them, and I gather the one-sided banner sheets from around my office and *gasp* write on the other side. I've stopped buying pens and am dedicated to using all of the ones I've managed to collect over the years. I have a couple of questions though: would fiberboard that's already 100% recycled (post-consumer or not), need to be FSC certified? I would think that the FSC would only be concerned with… Read more »


I was thinking about a question for this company. While these binders may be fine for high school and college students, they are VERY unappealing for younger children. I know we don't want kids to be slaves to fashion, but the reality is, most parents want their kids to fit in at least a little bit, and when everyone shows up to school with the latest superhero on their binder, or at least the the latest fashionable color, I don't think kids are going to want… cardboard brown. Or plain white. There must be something they could do to make… Read more »


I've got to say that your argument about putting the binders in the mouth is probably not a big deal for kids old enough to actually need binders. My 2 year old totally would, but obviously she's not the target market. My 4 year old still absent-mindedly chews the odd thing, but nothing as large as a binder. She's more likely to chew a pen or a pencil, something she's holding in her hand anyway. Kids are unlikely to use binders until at least age 6, from what I've seen, by which age most (not all, but most) are highly… Read more »

Farmer's Daughter

Hi Beth! Since I don't have children but am a teacher, I wanted to put in my two cents. Since I teach high school, it's a rarity for kids to chew on binders. But hey, I'm sure there are some kids who do, you know, teenagers. Anyway, I'm all about reusing what you already have. Many high schoolers need a separate binder for each class, which can become expensive. The great thing about 3-ring binders is that you can take out last-year's stuff and pop in new (recycled) paper for this year. That's what I do, and at the end… Read more »


I choose A, B, and then C in that order. My primary hesitation about A is that I don't actually need some of the things in the package (primarily the badge holder). But all the rest of the things I would use. Because I am not only a college professor, but one who teaches environmental politics, using nifty and pretty and clearly eco-inspired school supplies would set an example and convince others — my students and maybe colleagues — to give them a try. (that's an argument in favor of either A or B, but I like the reusability of… Read more »