Taking Plastic Off the (Lunch) Menu / by Alison M. Newcomb

Zero-Waste Lunch?

I'm sure it was at least two years ago that my oldest stepson came home from school distraught about the harm done to marine animals by human waste—in particular plastic waste. That evening we drove to Target after dinner to purchase reusable drinking straws. In my memory, the purchase of those metallic straws will always be the line in the sand for what has been an ongoing struggle align our family's principles with our daily habits at home.

I can say that I believe in the value of minimal living to our planet and I also understand the wide impact that creating minimal waste can have. But I can also say that living this way is a pretty difficult a thing to back your way into, willing and/or unwilling family in tow.

Baby steps is a good mantra.

So, with that mantra in mind, we've made a slow go at it—by reducing our use of plastic baggies or individually-wrapped snacks in packed lunches; by composting (for real this time) and including compost maintenance in the boys' chore lists, by actually giving my full(er) attention to our backyard vegetable garden to incorporate it into meal planning to avoid food waste; by committing to reusable drinking straws. 

And that's pretty much where it stopped. My reasons for not going further were plentiful:

  • The only semi-healthy snack our 7yr-old will eat comes exclusively in individually-wrapped packages
  • Plastic storage containers are only harmful if microwaved (right??)
  • All the disposable-alternatives are a hassle/time-consuming/expensive/don't actually stick to a glass casserole dish
  • What is the point of sending reusable food pouches/containers to school since the kids will lose them immediately (this is a proven statement, btw)?

And we coasted just like this for a couple years. Anytime I heard someone say "zero-waste lunch" I thought it was absurd. Until I got another consciousness jolt from the public school system—this time with pictures, as part of a 6th grade Earth Sciences project on our oceans. That school project (and one awful, seal-wearing-plastic-noose image) reignited my motivation to push beyond the easy-enough zone we'd become complacent with.  

Yet, there they were. The at least partially-valid constraints I'd been holding forth as our excuse for not trying harder with the whole waste-reduction thing. Figuring out ways around, over, and through those (mostly mental) obstacles took me a bit longer than I'd like to admit. But here we are. 

Where to Start

Since getting rid of all our plastic/disposable belongings at once was not an option, we are starting with two primary focus areas where we know we can, and should, significantly reduce the amount of waste we produce:

  • Food storage at home
  • Food storage/transporting away from home
    • Almost 100% of this category is school lunch

Before tossing every plastic item you use, do some research into what kinds of plastics are out there for food storage and how quickly those plastics break down, how long you can expect them to last, and whether or not they can even be recycled. 

Not All Plastics are Created Equal

Plastic Product Safety Symbols

Plastic Product Safety Symbols

Retrofitting our home kitchen food storage has been the easier overhaul to tackle. Over the summer months, I have made weekly stops at nearby Goodwill locations, scouring shelves for glass containers (with tops) to replace our current plastic-heavy leftovers collection. I have also experimented with a variety of the "reusable" food storage wraps out there and can squarely state that they do not all perform equally.

As for our second category of away-from-home food habits, I would say that we are in very early trial phase and are preparing for our first live experiment's launch on Monday, August 20th. 

Fall Semester Experiment

This fall, we are beginning our No Disposables School Lunch experiment. Since the odds are definitely stacked against us in the reusable container retention department, we plan to tread cautiously. Just in case, we are holding onto our semi-disposable backup plan if (or perhaps when) all our reusable lunch items are lost before we make it to September.

Despite my hedging, I did spend time researching options for how our family can continue to ramp up our efforts to limit the waste we create in the world. And I did find several school lunch products that I am hopeful will stick around long enough in our house to prove useful. 

You will find additional resources on going zero waste below, but here are a few of the products that are part of our fall experiment:

If we can keep up with these items through the first few weeks of school, I'm feeling pretty good about the general outcome.

Wish us luck! 


Helpful Resources


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