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.
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I can’t say I never noticed the amount of wrappers I was packing each day, but every mom was doing it, right?
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.
Behind the brown bag
According to one estimate from 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.
The Eventual Farmer
Keri Middaugh of Ypsilanti began her journey to waste-free lunches when her daughter entered first grade. Every day, she would return home with a lunchbox full of wrappers and leftovers.
“She brought home every last bit of what I packed for her, and I quickly became aware of how much was going into the trash each day. … I was uncomfortable with this waste of food and money,” says Middaugh, author of the children’s picture book My Detroit Garden. “Little by little we started making small changes, and now have almost no waste at lunchtime anymore.”
These days, Middaugh packs trash-free lunches for her daughters, Abigail and Jocelyn. “Our main strategies for trash-free lunches are using glass containers, cloth napkins, real silverware, as well as packing natural foods that are not individually wrapped,” she explains.
For a time, she was also making homemade reusable lunch baggies, which she says she found there was a “positive response to the reusable lunch tools because so many people feel the same way we did, disappointed that our lunches were producing so much waste,” she says.
“I find that most people are open to the idea of making small changes for a greater good and are eager to share their ideas.”
Peace, Love & Planet
Gina Adams-Levy, a Farmington mother of two and founder of the children’s environmental nonprofit Peace, Love & Planet, says waste-free lunches are a way to get the whole family involved in conservation efforts.
“It brings awareness not only to the schools but transcends to the home as well, that our convenience-based society is actually taking a big toll on our environment,” says Adams-Levy, who offers green resources and products on her website, peaceloveandplanet.org.
Among her many environmental efforts, Adams-Levy spearheaded Waste-Free Fridays at Gill Elementary in Farmington Hills as part of a National Geographic “Find Your Footprint” contest in 2011. Kids and parents worked together to pack waste-free fare, putting their trash into recycling and compost bins each day after lunch, then taking their empty containers and uneaten food back home. Their efforts earned them runner-up recognition in the nationwide competition.
“When the kids have to stand up and sort their own tray, and they can see how much they can recycle and how much they throw away, it’s a great visual,” Adams-Levy says.
Making hot lunches waste-free
Kathy Donahue, who worked as an environmental educator for the Clinton County Department of Waste Management, is taking waste-free lunches a step further, spearheading efforts to apply the concept to local hot lunch programs.
To reduce hot lunch waste, Donahue says schools can schedule recess before lunch, since studies have shown children finish more of their food after playing. She also urges schools to trade in foam for reusable trays, and offer milk and condiment dispensers instead of pre-packaged servings. Finally, she suggests that hot lunch programs suspend the requirement that children take certain foods from the cafeteria line whether they plan to eat them or not.
Schavey Road Elementary School in DeWitt, just north of Lansing, adopted some of Donahue’s suggestions and cut lunchtime waste from 128 pounds to 35 pounds during a two-week trial period – a 75 percent reduction.
Donahue says school districts can save significant money by cutting down on trash disposal costs in addition to helping the environment. It’s an uphill battle to change the politics and culture of public school hot lunch programs, but in the meantime, individual parents can make a difference by packing waste-free, Donahue says.
“We need to get back to a grass roots system where people are taking responsibility for the things that they do at the family level,” she says. “It’s an evolution, and you just do one step at a time.”
Use this handy checklist to help you pack a Zero Waste Lunch for your little one.
This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated for 2016.