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How to Create a Waste-Free School Lunch

Updated: Apr 3


school lunch

Hey kids (big kids too), want to have fun while helping the health of the planet and the health of you and your family? Take the challenge of packing a waste-free lunch! A waste-free lunch means that you have nothing to throw away in the trash when you're finished eating lunch. To learn why this is important and how to create a waste-free lunch, keep reading.


Why is a waste-free lunch so important?

According to the EPA, an average student will produce 67 pounds of packaging during lunch in one school year. That is around 20,000 pounds of trash produced in a year for one averaged sized elementary school. That's a lot of trash going to the landfills from just one school!


Let's paint another picture—the national average public school size is 526 students. Let's say each one of those students gets a carton of juice or milk every day during lunch. Multiply 526 students times 180 school days in a year and you get 94,680 cartons in the landfill a year by just one school. And that's just one drink, not to mention other packaging that may be discarded from school lunch.


By reducing the number of items in your lunch that must be thrown out, you can:

  • Prevent pollution in the air, on the ground and in the ocean

  • Conserve natural resources like water and air (essentials that we need to survive)

  • Save energy to help the planet

  • Reduce the need for disposal to prevent more trash in landfills

  • Be an environmental leader so that you can influence other kids (and adults!)

  • Create a better future for the environment, you and your family

kids playing

What creates waste?

Pre-packaged convenience foods create the most waste, such as Lunchables, juice pouches, granola bars, bags of chips, and snack wrappers. Other items that create lots of waste include plastic wrap and baggies, utensils, plastic cups, and straws. Even food that ends up in the garbage is considered as waste! In fact, a recent report showed that 27 to 53 percent of food was wasted from kids' plates in the United States (with 50 percent of that waste being fruits and veggies).


School-served lunches can also create waste and may pose a risk to children's health. Plastic trash in the school cafeteria, such as styrofoam trays and plastic “sporks” (or cutlery), is not only an environmental concern, but may actually pose serious health threats to children, either directly through the migration of chemicals to hot food, or indirectly by way of the disposal of plastic trash through the burning of garbage. The chemical styrene, a major component of styrofoam, is toxic from the beginning of manufacturing to the time it's discarded or burned to both people and the planet. Not-so-fun fact: Styrene has been categorized as a “reasonably anticipated carcinogen" by the United States Department of Health and Human Services because of the studies that show styrene leaches from containers into hot food. From an environmental perspective, when styrene containers become litter, they easily end up in our rivers and oceans, continuing to break down into microplastics (tiny bits of toxic-laden plastics) that are killing marine wildlife and contaminating our seafood. What to do if your school is using styrofoam to serve lunches? First, pack your own lunch. Second, get a petition together with your fellow students to ask the school to find a an alternative that is healthier for you and the planet.


Here's the good news about bringing your own lunch: Packing a healthy, sustainable, waste-free lunch is SIMPLE and FUN!


When you pack a waste-free lunch, both the health of our planet and your family will benefit by:

  • Saving Money: By switching to reusable items, you will purchase fewer disposable items and save money.

  • Staying Healthy: Single-use plastic containers have chemicals that can leach into food, especially when microwaved, that are unhealthy for us. Reusable items provide a safer choice for storing food since they contain fewer chemicals, especially when made of stainless steel or glass. Also, packing fruits and veggies that you love will entice you to eat and not waste them. And, we all know that fruits and veggies are healthy fuel for our bodies!

  • Saving the Planet: When you use a reusable item, you reduce the amount of trash that goes to our landfills, which creates a healthier planet.


The ultimate goal? Send zero trash to the landfill. (That's YOUR fun challenge!)


school lunch with fruit
image: Treehugger.com

What does it mean to pack a waste-free lunch?


"Waste” is anything that would get thrown away at the end of the lunch period, including yogurt containers, napkins, utensils, bags, and food scraps. A waste-free lunch means that you have nothing to throw away in the trash when you're done, except for compostable items such as apple cores, banana and orange peels. (Read more about composting and watch a fun video on how you can compost below!)


We can strive for a zero-waste lunches by:

  • Refusing things that you don’t need

  • Reducing your consumption to only what you truly need

  • Reusing as much as possible

  • Composting your food scraps

  • Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, reuse, or compost


lunch bag
image: EarthHero.com

Let's Get Started!

Below are 10 ways to create a waste-free school lunch.


1. Instead of plastic utensils, consider bringing utensils from home and bringing them back home with you to wash. Or use bamboo utensils like these or these (they come in fun colors!) from EarthHero.

bamboo utensils
image: EarthHero

2. Bring a Hydro Flask or fun water bottle with you to school instead of using disposable cups (plus, refilling them will help you stay hydrated and energized in school!).



reusable water bottle
image: EarthHero

3. Instead of plastic bags (that end up in landfills then into the ocean then into marine life's bellies) use colorful and easy-to-clean reusable sandwich bags.

reusable sandwich bag
image: EarthHero

4. Use stainless steel containers in place of plastic throwaway containers. Not only will you help the planet, but you also won't get those nasty chemicals that can leach from the plastic into your food that are unhealthy for your body and your brain.


5. Rather than using paper or plastic bags, switch to a reusable lunchbox or lunch bag. You can easily find lunchboxes at most stores, and an insulated lunchbox will keep your lunch cold until it is time to eat. Or, get creative and make your own lunch box by reusing items you have on hand.

reusable school lunch bags
image: EarthHero

6. Look at what you typically bring to school for lunch. Do you use single-serve containers or packages like yogurt, granola bars, or fruit cups? Perhaps you and your family can purchase these items in bulk or larger containers and divide them into single portions and smaller containers for lunch throughout the week. This will reduce the amount of single serve packaging that ends up in landfill AND save money since you're buying in bulk.


7. Pack your own lunch by using the fun containers that you've purchased or reusing old food jars to pack your own fruits, veggies, sandwiches and snacks. Choosing your favorite foods will make you more likely to eat it.


8. Portion out only what you think you'll eat. Sometimes it's hard to finish the whole meal or snack. Instead of bringing big portions, pack only what you think you'll eat so that you don't have to throw food away.


9. Get busy in the kitchen by creating fun shapes with your fruit or helping your mom or dad make your meals and snacks. Family meal prep and recipe creation can be fun. Plus, food tastes better when you create it!


10. Finally, if you want to take it one step further for a completely waste-free lunch, compost your food scraps! To create an easy composting system at home, check out this video. Don't forget to leave food scraps in the containers when done with lunch so you can add them to the compost at home.

composting

Bonus tip: Create your own garden and grow your own food! Use the compost that you create from your food scraps to grow nutrient-rich fruits and veggies that you can take to school (and maybe share with friends if you grow lots!).


Transitioning to zero-waste lunches will take some practice, but once you start making changes, it will become natural! Are you ready to challenge yourself to pack a waste-free lunch?


Watch The Weather Channel segment, "How to Create a Waste-Free School Lunch" below!



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