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Packing a Zero Waste Lunch

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Boy packing zero waste lunch

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one third of all waste in our country comes from packaging. That means that waste is created before you even use the product. Think about things like those individually wrapped cheese slices, or the single serving snacks that are in a bag within a bag, or even fresh fruit that's pre-cut and packaged. All of these items produce non-recyclable plastic trash, and all can be purchased in a way that uses less packaging.

So let's say you buy things that aren't double wrapped and pre-wrapped or aren't even wrapped at all. Good for you! Yet, you're not off the hook. How do you pack them up for your school lunch. Do you wrap them up in plastic anyway? If you're using single-use baggies and plastic wrap, you are.

Let's make it real.

Depending upon your specific school calendar, there are about 185 school days each year. Let's say you pack one sandwich, one crunchy snack, something like carrots, and one fruit each day. Just for kicks, let's add a juice pouch. If each of these items is in it's own baggie (whether it was packaged that way or you put it there), then how many baggies is that per year? With the juice, that's 925 plastic wrappers per year! And chances are, none of it is easily recyclable. If you add in a plastic fork or spoon and a paper napkin, that's more than 1,300 pieces of trash per year! Multiply that by how many people go to your school, and YIKES! That's a lot of trash.

The amazing thing: it never has to happen at all.

What you can do.

Boy with reusable tableware

Below are some tips on packing a lunch that will keep your stomach and the planet happy. It'll save your family money too. And you might even end up eating healthier.

  • Pack food in containers that can be washed and used again.
  • Try some of those new cloth "baggies" for dry snacks or small items. You can throw them in the dishwasher to clean them each day.
  • If you have to use plastic baggies, rinse them out, let them dry, and reuse them for snacks the next day.
  • Pack drinks and soup in a reusable thermos.
  • If you need to bring juice boxes or sports drinks to school, make sure their containers are recyclable. Choose cans, boxes and plastic bottles over pouches. If you love the pouches, check to see if your school participates in a fundraising program that collects the pouches.
  • Pack your whole lunch in a washable lunch box that you can bring to school every day.
  • Use recyclable straws or, better yet, no straw at all. Try a reusable straw that is made out of stainless steel, shatterproof glass, or bamboo
  • Pack washable cloth napkins and real silverware.
  • If you get take out with your family, and have single serve items that you don't use, don't throw them out. Save them for lunch boxes. Tiny packs of ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, and butter are great to have.  So are small packs of cookies and fruit that come with some meals. Those items still make waste, but it's better than throwing them away without using the food inside.


At-school-smIf you eat school lunch, there are ways you can help reduce waste there too.

Take only what you need with your tray, by taking one napkin or only one ketchup packet, you prevent a lot of waste.

Do not ask for more food than you can eat, throwing too much away is wasteful, and food waste produces a lot of harmful greenhouse gases.

Put your empty milk carton, juice box, water bottle or paper tray in the recycling bin. They are recyclable. You can also recycle paper plates and cups that are nearly clean. Just throw away the ones with food stuck on them or with oil soaked on them. (Check your school recycling rules for details.)

Encourage your friends in the lunch line to do the same as you!

Fun Stuff

US Environmental Protection Agency LogoDid you have a zero waste lunch today? Find out! The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides students with worksheets to score and compare how much waste is in their daily lunches.  Use the EPA's Packing a Zero Waste Lunch PDF and grade yourself. 
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