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How to Pack a Waste Free Lunch

Figure out what’s for lunch. A simple plan can make going waste free at lunchtime a snap.  Start by gathering “lunchtime intelligence” from your local restaurants, delis, grocery stores and farmer’s markets: what produce is in season this time of year? What can you incorporate into your menu that is locally grown? Use the knowledge you uncover to create a weekly checklist from which your family can choose a week’s worth of lunches. You will not only have an instant grocery list, but you’ll also have an empowered family who are active decision makers in the lunch process.  Click here for everydayJun's lunchtime checklist.

Reuse everyday.  According to the EPA, the average school child generates 67 pounds of lunchtime waste per year.  Multiply that by the number of school aged children (pre-K to 8th grade) and we’re talking about over 2.6 billion pounds of waste per year. And those figures don’t even take office workers and others who bring their lunches into account.

·         Ditch the brown paper bag for something safe and sustainable. When considering a reusable lunch bag, first think about how your family uses their current bags: Are they stuffed into backpacks and briefcases or are they carried separately? Do they use hard or soft sided lunch bags? Once you’ve sorted out their style, make sure that the lunch bag you are about to purchase is well insulated -- perishable food will only last a few hours without proper refrigeration. Last, choose a bag that can easily be cleaned in a dishwasher or washing machine. Spills don’t come entirely clean in wipe-off bags and often cause bacteria growth which leads to mold, and in turn, the disposal of a “reusable” lunch bag. 

·         Just say no to plastic baggies! According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags each year. Those plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. When choosing reusable containers -- whether stainless, plastic or fabric, make sure they are BPA- and lead-free and made from food safe FDA approved materials. Some key questions you’ll need to ask before deciding on the right reusable food containers for you and your family are: 1. Does your family prefer hard containers to keep food from getting “smooshed” or do they prefer fabric snack/sandwich baggies? 2. How easy are they to open and close? 3. How will they fit in your lunch bag? 4. Do you need them to be made of freezer or microwave safe materials?  5. Are they dishwasher or washing machine safe?

·         Kick the bottled water habit. According to the Container Recycling Institute, only 23% of plastic beverage bottles are actually recycled. The remaining 38 billion end up in landfills each year. There are many reusable options from which to choose. But when you do choose, make sure that your reusable bottle is made from BPA- and lead-free materials. Also, consider your material options (metal, glass or plastic), and whether you need a sports cap or a wide mouth. Last, determine whether you need them to be freezer and/or dishwasher safe.

·         Pass on the disposable utensils. Disposable forks, spoons, and knives add up over the year. Even the biodegradable kinds require perfect conditions in industrial composters to actually degrade. When choosing reusable utensils, consider your material options – stainless, bamboo or plastic. Another key consideration is whether you need separate utensils or an all-in-one version like a “spork.” Last, find out whether they are dishwasher safe.

Reap the Benefits. Making the switch to a waste free lunch is not just good for the planet.  You will be turning your children into “stewards of the environment” who are more conscious of the way they consume and dispose of everyday items – not just at lunchtime. And after your initial investment in reusable lunchware, your household will save hundreds of dollars each year.