Trends in Schools: Waste-free School Lunch

Kanga Sac reusable sandwich bags

Watching children scrap perfectly good food off a tray into a garbage bin is alarming. On Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the piles of wasted food and half-used packaging—even unopened, packaged food—hauled away after school lunch was the most shocking part of a very shocking series. School lunch waste is preventable, but it requires changing thinking and changing habits.

Waste-free Lunches estimates that

a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school

It costs schools money to haul waste, so waste-free lunch initiatives aren’t necessarily about environmental impact. Schools are looking for any way to reduce all waste. Trash cans full of wasted food and thrown away plastic containers are just one of the big sources of school waste. Whatever the motivation, waste-free lunch is a trend that is easy to welcome.

Does Your School Have Guidelines?

School waste-reduction programs that work have advocates in the schools. If you want to start a program for your child’s school, be prepared to get involved. If you have support from the school district or the provincial or state office of education, that’s a big help. But, the real work of shifting awareness and changing habits will happen day to day in the schools.

When one school in New York City participated in a Department of Sanitation waste prevention assessment, they found that each person generates ½ pound of waste per day. That would bump the Waste-free Lunch numbers up to 90 pounds of waste per school year per person. So, New York City provides simple guidelines and refers back to Waste-free Lunch.

Most waste reduction programs start with simple guidelines and build from there.

One California school conducted a pilot program in one classroom, giving each of the 30 students a reusable lunch kit then measuring success of the program. All parents used the kits and most agreed that they would continue to use them.

A very successful program can lead to a completely different approach to children and food at school. The Rethinking School Lunch guide from the Center for Ecoliteracy considers health, experience, food cycles, and more then incorporates all of it into the curriculum. Children don’t just fuel up at lunch time but they participate in food systems. Implementing this kind of program would take considerable commitment, but it helps to see the range of the possible.

Waste-free Lunch shares success stories, including a couple from Canada and the UK. When you read about the range of what people have tried and the ways they have succeeded, it is inspiring. Don’t be surprised if you come away with ideas to change school lunch at your child’s school.

Reusable Lunch Packaging

Reusable snack bag with zipper

The idea of a reusable lunch box or bag isn’t new, though it may be unusual to the children who will be carrying them. Once we take that step, it’s easy to make the rest of the lunch packaging reusable as well. My family packs lunches in reusable glass containers with snap tops. The weight of these can add up for a young child, but I like that we can use the same containers to store leftovers and for lunches. They still take up space and add weight on the way home, though. What works for a young child?

The innovation that catches my eye is also a new twist on an old idea: reusable snack bags and sandwich wrappers. So obvious, and so brilliant! The best versions of these don’t use any plastics at all but just zip the food into heavy canvas or wrap a sandwich in a cotton cloth.

Again and again, the old ideas become the new trends.

Next week I will go into more detail about all of the great reusable lunch products you can find at the Kids’ division of

Who Is Saying NO to Plastic?

See plastic bags around the world at Guardian UK.

See plastic bags around the world at Guardian UK.

Shifting Costs Back and Forth

Externalizing costs is a clever strategy. When business off-loads cost of dumping waste or cleaning up the environment or treating medical conditions caused by their toxic stew, they have successfully externalized costs in order to realize greater profit. Nice strategy, eh?

Efforts to encourage lower impact products or just a reduction in stuff altogether are often a recognition that those costs belong with the producers and users rather than with those poor or unfortunate enough to be incidentally dumped on in the process of making and distributing stuff.

Once the costs of stuff like plastic become more clear, we’re more willing to change. Once we find out that babies are born toxic, for example, and we freak out saying, “How could this have happened?” and we find that we are better able to hear our options. We become more willing to consider changes in our collective lifestyles that will either internalize costs (choose a more expensive but less toxic alternative, like buying a hybrid car) or remove the costs altogether (stop doing the thing that requires the stuff choice, like walking, biking, or taking the bus or train instead).

Actually, I think the big changes, the regulated and legislated changes, come when we can show the costs very clearly. That’s when those to whom the costs have been externalized start lobbying for change. The people paying medical bills, the cities paying for waste pick up, the cancer centers tracing clear lines from product to patient, the clean-up crews combing beaches for plastics and the dead birds and sea creatures who eat plastics—these are the effective voices in making changes. When the shock of the costs becomes too much, we push for change justified in terms of measurements and costs. We change in order to save money now and later.

If that’s what it takes, that’s fine by me.

Who is saying NO to plastics?

My lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive. This is a sample to show that the tide is turning against plastics.

Plastic Bottles
Local rejection of plastic bags and plastic bottles is one of the big stories recently. There are a lot of reasons to ban plastic bottles. For some, the issue is molecular migration of BPA and other toxins from container to contents. For others, the issue is single-use bottles in landfill. Still others are more concerned with water privatization and the bottled water dependence that follows.

More from Inside the Bottle, Ban the Bottle, and the Polaris Institute.

Bisphenol-A (BPA)
Both Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have declared BPA a chemical of concern. As concern about this toxic plastic ingredient spreads, more cautions and bans follow. A group of 60 scientists urge a worldwide ban on BPA.

Plastic Bags
Plastic bags blow around. They blow into trees, and they blow into the sea, where they look like jellyfish and are eaten by sea creatures. Images of plastic bags are easy to find and difficult to forget.

This should be the easiest of these changes, since the costs are clear both to the consumer and to the environment, and the solution is simple. Plastic bags are so easy to replace, since a cloth bag will do. (Yes, remember to wash your reusable bag, since a study showed that bags can get dirty. Hello! Then WASH it, dear Liza.)

These are steps in helping us move beyond waste. Friday I’ll write more about that big change.

Great organizations doing good work on anti-plastic activism

Beyond the Era of Stuff and Waste

Fake Plastic BabyOnce upon a time, even in my lifetime, plastics were the future—the former and temporary future.

In the film The Graduate, the main character, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), graduates from college and returns to his parents’ house for a celebration. His parents’ friends are interested in asking him—and telling him—about his future. One of these friends, Mr. McGuire, pulls Ben aside.

“Come on with me for a minute. I want to talk to you.” Once they are alone outside, he leans in close to tell Ben, “I just want to say one word to you, just one word.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Exactly how do you mean?”
“There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
“Yes, I will.”

I thought about it.

Plastics were a temporary future, a 20th-century aberration. Plastics are becoming part of our past as the late 20th-century becomes so obvious as a time of excess whose many debts and externalized costs will take a long time to pay off.

We start to pay that debt now.

In reaction to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve heard calls for boycotts. How far would we boycott, though? Are we prepared to go all the way? About 4.6% of U.S. petroleum is used to make plastic. Demand is expected to increase in Canada and in the U.S. for petroleum products.

But, don’t we recycle plastic? Doesn’t that mean we use less of the non-renewable resources? Yes, sort of. Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled, and about 25% of plastic bottles are recycled. So, yes, some plastics can be recycled, but there is a fairly low expectation that they will be. Most municipal solid waste is still just garbage. We may notice more what goes into landfill, but the biggest garbage dump in the world is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers millions of square miles of plastic bits breaking into smaller and smaller plastic bits just moving with the currents. When the plastics do break down, they leave toxic chemicals that enter the food chain, which eventually leads to us.

Recycling isn’t preventing the massive plastic dump and the toxic stew that follows.

Wait, What about Cleaner Energy Sources

With massive oil spills and smaller oil spills, more people are asking if it is really necessary to take such risks. Some seem almost desperate in their defense of petrochemical products, unwilling to consider that we might have to think beyond oil and gas.

We don’t have to turn to oil, though, right? We can squeeze every drop out of tar sands. Plastics can be made from oil or from gas. It’s all part of the same process. If we are to believe natural gas advertisements and advocates, natural gas is much better for the environment. I think they are referring to a tidily bounded portion of the lifecycle of natural gas, though. What I hear about natural gas as the clean fossil fuel does not fit with the picture I saw as I watched Gasland this past week. This is a heart-breaking documentary about the consequences of natural gas exploration. If you haven’t heard on the news about people across the U.S. setting light to the water out of their faucets, you need to see it to believe it. Devastating costs of petrochemical and mineral extraction have to be internalized in order for us to be honest about the real impacts of our wreckless lifestyles of stuff.

Another issue that will slap us in the face soon enough is that petrochemical resources are finite. We will (or have) hit the peak of oil and gas production, then further extraction will become more difficult and more expensive. We may find that the economics help us to rethink our dependence of plastics and other petrochem products.

Eventually, desperate defense will give way to change.

The End of Plastic

“This is the Petrochemical Age.”

No. I choose to lessen my dependence on oil now. It has been a long process, and it is ongoing, but I won’t give in. Great bloggers like Plastic Manners and Fake Plastic Fish are chronicling their efforts to give up plastic. It may feel overwhelming at first, but it’s possible, and you aren’t alone in your efforts to find another way to live.

The movement against single-use plastic is growing. There are many organizations dedicated exclusively or in part to plastic pollution education, reduction, alternatives, clean up, and so on. They provide guidance on lessening plastic dependence and suggest actions to make bigger change as well.

Beyond the Age of Stuff and Waste

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about all of the great natural and non-toxic products parents can use to replace children’s products that are made out of plastic—natural fiber diapers, wooden cars, natural rubber chew toys, stainless steel straws, and silicone popsicle molds. These are easy changes that don’t interrupt our lifestyles but just replace one product with another.

I think we need interruption, though.

We don’t just need alternatives but a complete change of approach. We need to think beyond the age of stuff and waste.

Image © Bluechrome |

Stroller Waste

Pouch baby sling for low-impact babywearingWhen we are outfitting our children in the best gear available, we don’t often think about what will become of that best gear when we are done and our children grow.

A stroller, for example, becomes almost disposable when styles or mechanics become obsolete. When a stroller breaks, how often do we fix it? Isn’t it more likely that we just buy a new stroller? It concerns me that such a substantial piece of equipment is used for such a short time.

With my children, I had a lightweight, folding stroller as well as several baby slings. I used the stroller seldom. I would almost say that I wish I hadn’t bought a stroller at all, except that there were a few times with two small children in an airport when I was very grateful to have a place to put my toddler while running to catch a plane.

Durable goods, when unrecycled or unrecyclable, end up in landfill. Solid waste is the rest of the story of stuff.

What options do you have with a stroller?

  • Get a screwdriver and fix it, if it’s broken.
  • Buy replacement parts from the manufacturer and fix it, if it’s really broken.
  • Consignment, if you want to sell it.
  • Donate if it’s in good shape or Recycle if it isn’t. (Read about this great donation and recycling program from Baby Planet.)

What other options do you have?

Use a sling or other baby carrier. In a pouch sling like Hotslings, for example, there is very little fabric used and no extra rings or buckles to create bulky waste.

If you are looking for a low-impact way to transport your baby, choose babywearing.

Remembering the Cloth Diaper Option

As locals in Coquitlam, BC, wonder if their throwaway diapers will stink as they wait for trash day, one letter to the editor reminds them that they can avoid the wasteful garbage stink with cloth diapers.

Just think how such a responsible decision will help to save us from environmental collapse, landfill collapse — or a stinky neighbourhood at the very least.

Joy Silver, Coquitlam

I love reading letters like this. Every town needs someone willing to help everyone remember a better way to diaper babies.