How to Create a Waste-Free School Lunch

Updated: Feb 7

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

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!)


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


Let's Get Started!

Below are 10 ways to create a waste-free 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.

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!).

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.

image: EarthHero