According to the New York State Department of Conservation, a child taking a disposable lunch to school will create an average of 67 pounds of trash per school year — a pretty heavy load for schools to haul off to landfills and incinerators.
In an effort to address this issue, parents, teachers, administrators and students across the country are teaming up to implement waste-free lunch programs aimed at reducing lunch waste.
Here's what they recommend:
Pack a waste-free lunch every day.
If that seems daunting, start with "waste-free Wednesdays," and work your way up to full time. It's easy once you make it part of your daily routine.
Pack food in sturdy reusable containers: Avoid plastic bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and prepackaged foods whenever possible.
Use a refillable drink bottle instead of disposables.
Include a cloth napkin instead of paper.
Pack reusable utensils, not disposables.
Invest in a quality reusable lunch box instead of using single-use bags.
Packing a waste-free lunch may take a bit more time and creativity but, given the environmental benefits, it's well worth the extra effort. Here are some tips for making it work:
• Pack lunches the night before and store them in the refrigerator overnight.
• Maximize leftovers. Prepare extra servings at dinner for the next day's lunches. Pack the leftovers in lunch boxes in the evening when you're doing your regular dinner clean up.
• Keep fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutritious foods on hand.
• Keep nuts and dried fruit on hand for emergencies.
• Buy from bulk bins to reduce your costs.
• Consider buying a CSA — Community Supported Agriculture — share or shop at the farmers' market.
• Write your name on all your containers before you leave the house.
Save money with waste-free lunches
Packing a waste-free lunch not only reduces landfill waste, but it costs less, too. A prepackaged lunch costs about $4.02 a day or $723.60 per school year, compared to $2.65 a day or $477 per school year for a waste-free lunch — a difference of $246.60 per person, per year. Adults can save even more. In fact, an adult can save an estimated $100,000 over a 30-year career by packing lunch from home. (This assumes a cost of $3.50 for a home-packed lunch compared to $6 for a takeout meal.)
Help your school save money
Finally, waste-free lunch programs help schools reduce waste hauling fees by reducing the amount of trash they send to the landfill. The money saved can be spent on educational programs instead. Landfills last longer, and children learn the importance of protecting the planet. So, if you're doing lunch this school year, make sure it's waste-free.
For more information on waste-free lunches, to find out what others are doing, or to share your own waste-free lunch story, visit wastefreelunches.org.
Amy Hemmert, president and co-founder of Obentec Inc. (laptoplunches.com) is a writer, educator and mother of two. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in English. She has co-authored five books and numerous articles, and has been a frequent presenter at professional conferences in the United States and abroad. Her interests include cross-cultural communication, language acquisition, family nutrition, organic gardening, cooking, and the environment.