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Zero Ziplocs: Packing Waste-Free Lunches For Your Kids

Drink pouches and plastic forks are so passe. This school year, discover the art of packing the waste-free lunch. It's good for the earth and your wallet – and it's easier than you think.

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As lunch-packing season approaches, the latest must-have isn't Bosco Sticks or Go-Gurt. Instead, it's the Zero Waste Lunch. Families in the know are trading brown bags and individually wrapped snacks for lunches that keep waste out of school trash bins.

What's a 'zero waste' lunch?

I first heard of the concept when my son's elementary school took a field trip to Indian Springs Metropark last spring. A note came home from the park's Environmental Discovery Center challenging parents to send a lunch free of disposable components: No chip bags, Capri Suns or – gasp – Ziplocs allowed.

As the mom of a second grade boy and preschool girl, it seemed I had just gotten cold lunch down to a science: Send hubby to Costco for juice boxes, mini chip bags and packaged fruit snacks. Throw one each into lunchboxes, add sandwiches, and repeat five days a week.

I can't say I never noticed the amount of wrappers I was packing each day, but every mom was doing it, right?

Wrong.

As I researched the Zero Waste Lunch, I realized it's a growing trend. Parents across the country and right here in metro Detroit have been trading in wasteful shortcuts for waste-free options that are healthier, less expensive and kinder to the planet.

I decided to find out more.

The Metro Park effort

It turns out Jill Martin, an interpreter at Indian Springs Metropark and mother of two, launched the Zero Waste Lunch effort at the White Lake park after she noticed every field trip generated about three garbage bags full of trash.

"These kids are coming to learn about the environment, ecosystems and sustainability, and we have these very unsustainable lunches. Each day we have about 100 kids, and we end up with three huge bags of trash. It's always bothered me," Martin says.

So she decided to do something about it. She made a simple flier outlining the principles of Zero Waste Lunches and tips on how to pack them. The challenge is optional, but Martin said many schools have participated.

After lunch, trash is collected and weighed in front of the children and food scraps are taken to an outdoor compost barrel. Each month, the school that produced the least lunchtime trash gets vouchers for free programs at the park.

The program has been so successful at Indian Springs, Martin plans to share it with interpreters at the other Huron-Clinton Metroparks throughout metro Detroit. She's hoping the idea will spread.

Behind the brown bag

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, every child creates an average of 67 pounds of school lunch trash per year. That translates to more than 18,000 pounds of trash for an average elementary school – or 40,000 for a middle school each year.

The EPA is helping to spread the word about waste-free lunches, providing online resources for schools and parents that want to learn more.

The concept of a Zero Waste Lunch is that everything should be reusable or compostable. The lunch is packed in a reusable bag with reusable utensils, reusable snack bags, a reusable drink container and a cloth napkin. Its counterpart, the waste-free lunch, allows for recyclable containers if the school offers recycling bins or the containers are brought back home.

Neither option includes individually packaged foods, disposable baggies or plastic forks, spoons or straws. Moreover, they do not contain food children don't like, aren't going to eat and will throw away whole.

Fruit, vegetables and boiled eggs are recommended, as long as cores and eggshells are composted.

Yogurt, applesauce, chips, treats and granola bars are encouraged, provided they are bought in bulk and sent in containers that can be rinsed and reused.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? Well, maybe. But what would you say if making these small changes could add up to real cash savings? According to WasteFreeLunches.org, the average family can save $1.40 per day, or $247 per year, by foregoing plastic bags, utensils and napkins and buying in bulk.

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