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How School Lunch Packaging Waste Adds Up

Moms Create a Recyclable Solution to School Lunch Waste


Students eating lunch in classroom
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Dear EarthTalk: Now that the school year is starting, how can I pack school lunches for my kids that are less wasteful of packaging?
-- Maryellen, via e-mail

When kids open their lunchboxes after a hard morning of the three Rs (readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic), they hardly expect to be learning about the other three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle).

But parents can use the school lunch they pack for the kids as a green lesson--if, that is, they can only hold off on the convenient but wasteful single-use paper napkins, plastic baggies and cutlery, and the pre-packaged foods and juice boxes.

The High Cost of School Lunch Convenience
We've all come to depend upon such school lunch throwaways to keep us moving speedily through each day, and it is difficult to resist those temptations jutting out at us in the supermarket aisles (especially if we bring the kids shopping with us). But such conveniences come at an environmental cost as our landfills clog up with plastic and our garbage incinerators continue to belch out hazardous emissions.

So how are parents to “do the right thing” when it comes to school lunches?

Moms to the Rescue with Recyclable School Lunch Packaging
Enter Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring, two California moms who were appalled to learn that a typical American school kid generates 67 pounds of discarded school lunch packaging waste per school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds yearly for the average-sized elementary school.

Hemmert and Pelstring began networking with other parents who shared their concerns, and quickly hit upon the “no-brainer” that by switching to reusable school lunch containers, cloth napkins, stainless-steel forks and spoons, and refillable drink containers--not to mention eschewing the “Lunchables” and other unhealthy-to-boot prepared meals--they could eliminate their kids’ school lunch waste altogether.

They also discovered it was a great way to save money, as the costs of single-use disposables like juice boxes adds up quickly in relation to those of doling juice into plastic screw-top “sippie” cups out of half-gallon containers. Sure, some of the silverware and containers never make it back home, but that’s a small “one step back” against the “two steps forward” of saving hundreds of dollars on school lunch waste per child per school year.

Waste-free school lunches also save schools time and money, as less waste cuts down on the frequency of trips to the outside dumpster and on the amount of trash that needs to be hauled away.

“If every American child attending a public elementary school packed a waste-free lunch, 1.2 billion pounds of lunch waste would be diverted from landfills each year,” says Hemmert. “Landfills would last longer, and children would learn the importance of protecting the planet.”

Hemmert and Pelstring, who met in 1995 as members of a mothers group, went on to be good friends and jogging partners and, in 2002, launched a company, Obentec, specializing in the production of stylish reusable and modular lunch containers called Laptop Lunches, fashioned after Asian Bento boxes. The company also produces a free monthly newsletter, the Laptop Lunch Times, which includes lunch recipe suggestions, packing tips and links to related websites.

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