Waste-Free Lunches

Two waste-free lunches in different reusable containers. The oranges are in reusable silicon muffin cups. Photo by Jennifer Hartzell

In previous columns, I have written a lot about the unsustainability of our disposable culture. I’m writing today about a simple way you can reduce the amount of trash you and your family generate: waste-free lunches. I know you might be thinking “that will be so difficult, it’s so easy to throw a sandwich in a plastic bag, an individual pack of chips, a plastic water bottle or juice box, etc.” I’m hoping to persuade you that it’s not only easier to pack a trash-free lunch, it’s also less expensive!

First, let’s start with getting rid of those plastic baggies. There are so many reusable lunch containers to choose from these days. If you do a quick search on Amazon, you’ll see what I mean. I have my favorites that I use for my kids, but it’s certainly a personal preference. There are many with multiple compartments, as well as larger containers geared towards salads. You can also find reusable, thermal containers for hot foods, and the food does stay hot for a few hours!

Investing in a reusable lunch container will also save you money. Each plastic baggie you use costs around 2 to 4 cents. Let’s take the average for comparison sake, 3 cents. Let’s say you use three plastic bags a day for one lunch (sandwich, chips and carrots). That’s 9 cents a day, five times a week, adding up to 45 cents a week, which is $23.40 a year. Again, you’re thinking “not that much money.” However, if you have two children you are packing for, and yourself, you’re at $70.20 a year – in just plastic baggies. Reusable lunch containers are typically less than $20, meaning you’ll break even within the year for one lunch. I know I have found reusable containers at Marshall’s for $4 or $5; at that price you will break even in 4-6 weeks!

The second item to address for a waste-free lunch is the drink. Plastic water bottles and juice pouches/boxes are also not expensive, however, they cost the planet dearly in excess waste and, like the plastic baggies, they add up. Each water bottle or juice box costs between $0.10-$0.35, or $0.50-$1.75 a week. You can invest in one reusable water bottle, a water filtration system (Brita, Soma, etc.) and eliminate this cost (and waste) from your life. Packing a reusable water bottle in your and your kids’ lunches can save you close to $100 a year! Added bonus: you’ll never run out! No panic in the morning when you realize you don’t have any juice boxes left!

Third on the list are the single-serving packages of chips, carrots, cut apples, etc. These single-packed snacks are convenient for sure, but their wasteful packaging is detrimental to the earth. Also, you typically pay more for the convenience. Purchasing chips in full size bags, and then putting them in your reusable lunch container reduces trash, and reduces cost.

Further, I hope you will consider not purchasing packaged fresh fruit. Apples, bananas, and oranges are already packaged pretty well by nature. They do not need plastic. If you like cut apples, simply take a couple minutes to cut one up and sprinkle some pineapple juice or clear pop (Sprite, 7-Up, etc.) generously on them to prevent them from turning brown, then pack them in the reusable lunch container.

Pre-cut fruit sold in plastic is usually dipped in a substance to prevent oxidation (browning) and increase shelf-life. One of the products they are dipped in is Natureseal, a polysaccharide-based surface treatment that uses cellulose derivatives as film-formers. Edible films may consist of four basic materials: lipids, resins, polysaccharides and proteins. Plasticizers (polyethylene glycol) can also be added to customize the film for a specific use. I don’t know about you, but that does not sound appetizing to me. While the FDA says those edible films are completely safe, I’ll take my fruit without the film, thank you.

Lastly, since you’ve done all this work to eliminate waste, you may as well throw a reusable spoon or fork into your lunch, as well as a cloth napkin! These are simple to wash when you get home. Maybe challenge yourself to pack waste-free lunches for a week? Or two weeks? I think you’ll find it easier than expected, and hopefully this can become a lifelong habit for you!

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Volume 8, Issue 8, Posted 9:46 AM, 04.19.2016