Green Up Your School Lunch

Less waste and less plastic are better for your family and the earth

As our children head back to school this month, we may find ourselves stocking up on brown paper bags, zip-close plastic bags, and “Lunchable”-type goodies. After all, a well-stocked pantry can make all the difference in having a smooth school morning or an anxiety-filled mad dash for the door.

But, let’s follow that lovingly-packed brown paper bag into the lunchroom. Where does it all go when the bell rings, lunch is over, and it’s time to run off to recess?

The EPA estimates that a child bringing a brown bag lunch to school every day throws away about 67 pounds of waste each school year. Other estimates are as high as 90 pounds per student per year. Multiply that by over 58 million students in the U.S. You don’t have to be a math whiz to realize that millions of tons (between 1.9 and 2.6 million tons for the star students out there) of garbage could stay out of the waste stream with a little tweak to our school morning preparations.

Lunchboxes/ Lunchbags

First, let’s replace the paper bag with something that is reusable and can hold a little more weight. Have older kids worried about style? Check out the resources below for simple canvas lunch sacks, modern insulated totes, or retro metal lunchboxes. 

As we are shopping and doing our best for the Earth, let’s also think about our health. Plastic lunch boxes and containers may contain numerous chemicals of concern, including leadphthalatesvinyl (PVC), and bisphenol-A (BPA). Some brands may infuse Microban®, an antimicrobial chemical (triclosan), into the fibers of a child's lunchbox. While this may seem like a good idea to avoid germy boxes, health advocates warn of serious health and environmental concerns associated with the chemical. Learn more about triclosan.

For lunchboxes without chemicals of concern, look on-line or in stores for brands such as Crocodile Creek (PVC-free, phthalate-free, BPA-free), Ecobags (Organic cotton), Kids Konserve (100% recycled plastic bottles or recycled cotton canvas). Find many brands and materials (including stainless steel!) at Reuseit.

Food and Drink Containers

The iconic brown paper bag is not a horrible thing in and of itself. After all, it’s what’s inside that counts. The plastic sandwich and snack bags, disposable applesauce or yogurt containers, one-time use water bottles or drink boxes, etc. that we so smartly bought to prepare for the morning hustle are now all in the trash—after only being used for a few hours. Yet, they will last in the waste stream for hundreds or even thousands of years. 

Instead, invest in a sturdy set of reusable food containers. (This will save trips to the store too!) Look for stainless steel, which is dishwasher-safe and a great alternative to plastic and glass (no breakage!). LunchBotsKlean KanteenKids Konserve offer stainless steel waste-free lunch kits. If you opt for reusable plastic, look for lead-free and BPA-free, such as Crocodile Creek. On-line retailers, such as Reuseit carry a plethora of options. Also consider insulated food jars to give you and your kids more lunch options (think: warm soup, mashed potatoes, spaghetti, and more!) Check out Target, Meijer, ACE, Rite Aid, K-Mart, or Kroger for Thermos and Aladdin brands. 

Feeling like there’s too many small containers to fit into the cute or stylish lunchbox? Check out the latest craze: all-in-one “bento boxes”, which have two to four compartments in one container.

Be sure to toss in a durable fork or spoon (one that you won’t mind if it doesn’t find its way home) and a small cloth napkin. 

OK Disposables

For food wrappers that don’t need to be hauled home each day, yet are more eco-friendly than plastic wrap or bags, reach for unbleached wax paper or parchment paper. These come in individual sheets, long rolls, or pre-formed bags. Rolls of unbleached parchment paper and wax paper are available at most grocers. Check health food stores or the health food aisle for disposable wax paper bags, such as those from If You Care ®.

Drink boxes and Snacks

After this thoughtful preparation, some mornings will still call for a quick grab and go. But, you can still be a waste-free hero. Schools or families can collect juice pouches, chip bags, or granola bar wrappers and send them to Terracycle in exchange for a donation to your favorite school or charity. TerraCycle recycles items that most recycling programs won’t accept. Participating brands include CapriSun, Clif Bar, Honest Kids, Kool-Aid, Lays, and others. Go to TerraCycle to learn more and start a lunch recycling program at your child’s school.


Lastly, it’s not just the containers that get thrown away! Food also winds up in the garbage pail. According to the USDA, Americans waste enough food every day to fill a 90,000 seat football stadium, almost one third of which is wasted at the retail and consumer level. They suggest extending lunch periods to 30 minutes to save 30% or more of lunch room food waste. Schools can schedule recess before lunch to save another 30%. Visit the USDA’s website for more Creative Solutions to Ending School Lunch Waste

At home, be sure to involve children in making their own lunches.  They will pack what they like (with grown-up approval) and—like anything that requires a bit of effort—they will have pride and appreciation for the end product. Remind yourself and your children to only pack what they can eat in a 20 minute sitting (the standard amount of time allotted for school lunch). Feeling stuck in a PB & J rut? Check the Internet or magazines for fresh ideas. 100 Days of Real Food is one of the many resources out there.

Happy (waste-free) lunching!


Published on August 31, 2016