Back to School

Conservation Corner: Back to School Shopping? Beware the Trapper Keeper Trap

Posted in: Conservation

Tags: over consumption


Remember the Trapper Keeper? If you had or were a child in the 80’s or 90’s you almost certainly do. That’s when the Trapper Keeper was in its prime. I’m told the stylish plastic binders still exist but if so, they’re a bit lost amid the million interchangeable items in your local stores Back to School section. I have a theory about Trapper Keepers. They were awesome, they were hip, they were, in fact, useful, but they were also fragile, disposable, and potentially the harbingers of a destructive and ongoing ecological problem.

I asked my dad once what back-to-school was like when he was a kid. He talked about the disappointment of the end of summer and the drudgery of returning to class. He mentioned having to make covers for his assigned text books out of paper bags. “We had to cover them because the same books had been used for years, maybe decades.” He couldn’t remember ever carrying binders and wasn’t sure that he’d ever even owned a backpack.

I am a product of the eighties and nineties and my back-to-school memories are a bit different. I remember begrudgingly following my parents into K-mart or Target. I remember shopping carts loaded with a sea of “necessary” supplies. I have emotionally charged memories of Jansport backpacks, erasable pens, plastic protractors, mechanical pencils, and of course, I remember my Trapper Keeper. Or, more accurately, I remember Trapper Keepers, because cool though they were, they rarely lasted long and almost always wound up getting tossed by the end of the school year.

I dug up the history of this particular item because of all the items purchased each August, the Trapper Keeper is the one that has the most pop-culture relevance and nostalgia (and this isn’t just for me personally, there’s a vibrant market out there for “vintage” Trapper Keepers). In case you’re unfamiliar, the Trapper Keeper is at its heart, little more than a stylish variation on the standard three-ring binder, invented by Mead Corporation employee E. Bryant Crutchfield in the late 70’s. There’s a fascinating write-up about this history at but the long and short of it is that students in the 70’s were struggling with organization and Crutchfield discovered a way to exploit a previously untapped market.

Every high school movie ever made has a scene in which a bully knocks the hero’s stuff out of his or her hands resulting in a fluttering cascade of paperwork. The Trapper Keeper neatly solves this problem. The binder itself closes securely with a flap. The rings hold onto the individual folders, and the folders have angled vertical pockets so even when held upside down, the papers contained within can’t fall out. At its core, it is a profoundly useful device.

Now here’s where my theory comes in. The difference between the Trapper Keeper and the various three-ring binders it competed with is that the Trapper Keeper was aggressively marketed. There were television commercials for the Trapper Keeper and even at the outset, there were options as far as appearances went. The folders came with pictures printed on them and eventually, the binders did as well. This had two immediate and important consequences. Firstly, kids wanted the things. The same way we wanted specific toys, we now wanted specific folders. When I was in third grade, my folders had to have Ninja Turtles on them. For some of my friends, it was football, or Transformers, or cars. We nagged our parents, pleaded in the aisles of the stores, traded with one another on the playground.

The second major consequence of the Trapper Keepers appearance was a sudden shift toward disposability. While TV dinners, instant coffee, and paper plates were already well-entrenched by the early eighties, the disposability of school supplies was something new. It’s not that the Trapper Keeper was specifically designed to be disposable; it’s just that it was designed to be cheap. Rather than sturdy metal rings, the binder sported a plastic sliding mechanism that (at least in my case) never survived the school year. Likewise, the thin plastic cover heat-sealed around the binder inevitably split and tore. In the rare case that the binder actually made it through the year, it was practically a guarantee that by the start of the next grade a new model would be out. A young me, horrified by the idea of starting fourth grade with something as childish as a Ninja Turtle folder would clamor for the newer model on display at the store.

I’m picking on the Trapper Keeper because it’s the most famous example but it’s hard to ignore the changes that came in its wake. In my day, Jansport backpacks also carried a must-have cachet. The cool kids had Jansports and if you wanted to be one of them, you needed something similar. The backpacks were popular, useful, relatively cheap, and, at least in my case, almost always wore out or broke before the next summer vacation.  Around this same time, there was also a surge in totally unnecessary accessories for the elementary school crowd. We had pencil grips that slid over your trusty #2 pencil because apparently pencil-slippage had been an ongoing crisis. Initially, these were simple rubber sleeves but I have clear memories of ergonomically designed grips that were supposed to teach you how to correctly hold your pencil as well.

By the fifth grade, I was taking not only pencils and pens to school but also erasable pens, the much demanded middle ground between the permanence of ink and the correct-ability of graphite. I also had a compass that I used maybe once or twice a year but inevitably replaced the next year, a plastic protractor (usually stored in a plastic pencil box that still contained the shards of the previous protractor) and defying all logic, a cheaply made, manual three-hole punch that could be stored in my three-ring binder to prep non-hole-punched papers for storage. This device barely worked, broke almost immediately, and competed for space in the binder with hole-punched folders which could just as easily have held the non-hole-punched papers.

The problem with this situation is not just that I wasted time and energy packing around unnecessary products or even that so much money was (and is) wasted by parents across the country. The real problem is that almost all of these needless products are made out of cheap, easily manufactured, mass-produced plastic. And all of that plastic, from my very first Trapper Keeper to my last stupid hole-punch, do you know where it is now…In a landfill. All of it is still sitting quietly, patiently, resolutely in a landfill somewhere. And alongside my collection of discarded Trapper Keepers are the 75-million others that had been sold by 2013. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, doesn’t rot, doesn’t break down and disappear. The polymer strands that make up most plastics persist, sometimes for decades, centuries, or more.

As it turns out, plastics are far worse than we once knew. They essentially never go away and there is mounting evidence that plastics are complicit in a number of medical and ecological issues, from endocrine disorders to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s a giant swirling gyre of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean. If you’re like me, you’re probably imagining a floating landfill of plastic bottles, old Nikes, and swollen black bags of trash. In reality, the patch is virtually invisible. While plastics don’t typically biodegrade, they do break down into smaller and smaller pieces eventually becoming what is called “microplastics”. These nearly invisible particles of plastic polymer congregate in the garbage patch and turn the water into a milky soup. Fish, turtles, and other sea life readily consume these near microscopic particles. Resulting problems can range from the infamous entanglement deaths of sea turtles and whales to sea bird starvation resulting from gut space being taken up by indigestible plastic rather than food. While the problems associated with plastics extend far beyond school supplies, the culture of back-to-school over-consumption is nonetheless a largely unrecognized culprit.

The Back-to-School season is a time when our economy and ecology collide in a fairly dramatic way. According to the to “Backpack Index” put together by Huntington Bank for the last decade, the average cost to equip an elementary school child for the year has gone up by 88% since 2007 with similar numbers for middle and high-school aged students. They estimate that the average family can expect to spend $659, $957, and $1,498 for elementary, middle, and high-school aged students respectively. These costs can be crippling for some families and much of what those dollars go to buy can be devastating for the environment. While much of what shows up on back-to-school shopping lists is obviously necessary for a student to have, clearly not all of it is. Inflation and the increasing intensity of the education system alone simply cannot account for an 88% cost increase in less than a decade.

There’s no doubt that kids these days need much more for school than my parents or even I myself did. We had to have calculators but today’s generation needs flash drives and tablet computers. These things are inevitably expensive and alongside them, even basic items like pencils have grown pricier. Even with that taken into account, however, it has never been easier than it is today to limit your impact on the environment. We know now that disposable plastic is a problem and can easily avoid mechanical pencils, plastic rulers, and garbage products. Notebook paper may still be a necessity but it’s now simple to find stuff made of recycled product. These items may be more expensive at the outset, but by avoiding unnecessary expenditures like my series of hole punches and pencil-grips, and by investing in long-lasting products as opposed to the more disposable, many of these costs can be deferred over the long term.

Ten years ago, I bucked a lifelong trend and purchased a truly high-quality backpack. One produced by a company known for taking an environmentally conscious stance in its manufacturing practices and advocating quality above cost. It cost me significantly more than the JanSport and EastPacks I loved so much as a kid, but it has also survived a decade of daily use and abuse. It’s been dropped, kicked, dragged, tossed, worn through rainstorms, left out in the snow, and chewed on by a succession of dogs and yet, it’s still going strong. The cost for the eight to ten cheap backpacks I’d have gone through since 2006 far outweighs the cost of the one on my back today.

Like the generations that preceded us, my generation has a lot to answer for. When it comes to the rampant waste of our school supply consumerism, we can duck behind the defense of “we didn’t know better”. Alternatively, we can take the lessons of a culture of disposability and waste and turn them into teaching points for the future. When you go to the store to load up on supplies, whether for your children or for yourself, take a moment to consider what is necessary and what isn’t. Take a moment to consider what becomes of these minor conveniences after they’ve broken or outlived their usefulness. In the long run, none of us are going to save the world simply by buying quality products, but if we can at least stop burying it under mounds of non-degrading, non-essential garbage, we’re making a start.