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Zero Waste Lunch Tips & Non-Toxic School Supplies

eco-friendly-lunch-purple-bag[1]In just a few short weeks, kids will be eagerly heading back to school toting sandwiches wrapped in plastic bags along with bags of chips, yogurt, napkins, plastic forks, juice boxes and water bottles stuffed into paper bags.

Health wise, economically, and environmentally, however, these lunches leave a lot to be desired.

Refrigerated food, including lunch meat, poultry, and dairy must be kept cold (less than 40 degrees) in order to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying even if they are cured or contain preservatives. Furthermore, the disposable products in those lunches, such as the napkins, plastic bags and utensils, juice boxes, and individual bags of chips add an extra $250 per school year (per child) not even mentioning the environmental costs. With a typical American school kid generating 67 pounds of discarded packaging waste per school year for lunches that means over 18,000 pounds annually for an average-size elementary school and one-billion pounds nationwide just from school lunches.

Go green and make it a goal to put sustainable practices into their lunches all year long! Packing a nutritious lunch brought from home in reusable containers and making sure trash/recyclables get into the correct bin when discarding them are just a couple of ways to reach the goal of a zero waste lunch.

Tips on Going Green with School Lunches:

  1. Think Reuse and Long Term Use: whenever possible, choose products that can be reused instead of single use items. For instance, instead of brown bags which don't insulate and tear easily, use a lunch box, thermos and reusable containers for snacks and sandwiches.  Or wrap up your lunch in a large piece of cloth and the cloth triples as placemat, napkin and lunch container. Just toss it in the machine to clean. Click here for CalRecycle's websitefor tips on waste prevention tips and to learn how one local school is cutting back on waste. Here is another link with zero waste lunch tips and an eye opening cost comparison between a disposable lunch and a zero waste lunch.
  2. No more disposable plastic bags: Instead of buying plastic baggies year round, use reusable, washable pouches and containers to package bulk food into lunch portions. Click this link to read more about the pouches. Let’s imagine one person uses 3 sandwich bags per lunch, one for a sandwich, one for sliced fruit, and one for pretzels. Multiply that by 180 days per school year and we’re potentially looking at 540 plastic bags per person per school year! Now consider the total number of students in the district— approximately 21,000 – and pretend half bring their lunch (3 disposable sandwich bags each), we’re looking at 5.7 million disposable sandwich bags each school year that would go to a landfill! This is needless waste! We can do better!
  3. Buy Food in Bulk and Stay Local: not only is buying fresh, local food less taxing on the planet, it is more beneficial for us as well, reducing the amount of waste byproducts produced, supporting local businesses, and providing healthy options right at home. Older school aged teens can eat lunch at school instead of driving out.


Buying Safer School Supplies

Its also time to tackle that class supply list and get the items checked off before school starts. Once again, its always best to reuse last year's school supplies if possible. Are most of the pages of that spiral notebook not used? Just tear out the pages used and you have a brand new spiral notebook! Are those pencils all different lengths? They may not all be the same length but they are still useable! 

Not only are plastic school supplies not eco-friendly, but many supplies contain PVC and BPA, and studies have shown they are endocrine disruptors to our bodies. Here is a link reporting on plastics that are prevalent in school supplies. Most lunchboxes, backpacks and school supplies have moderate to high levels of lead, PVC, phthalates, BPA and other toxins.

The Story of Stuff Project published a back-to-school guide on purchasing PVC free school supplies.

Rodale's Organic Life has also published a guide for environmentally friendly, safer lunch kits and school supplies.

Safer Chemicals published an e-book for parents regarding toxic chemicals in the products we buy.

Here is a link with picks for toxin-free lunchboxes for all ages.

It is better to purchase a high quality backpack rather than one that costs less but will fall apart after a year or less. Click these links with information about choosing a non-toxic backpack:

Non Toxic Backpacks for Elementary School Aged Children

Non Toxic Backpacks for Preschool Aged Children


Instead of buying plastic 3-ring binders, you can purchase cardboard ones instead. We have seen them available online at various merchant websites, including Office Depot.

Let us know of any great ideas you have, or activities taking place on your campus so we can highlight your success, and share your story with other local schools in our District. Email Rod Cordova at

Check out our 'green' resources for schools and students on our website at this link.

For tips on a healthier, more sustainable school year from the Environmental Working Group, click here.

To visit the CVUSD Recyles website, which has resources for students, parents, teachers and administrators, please click here.

For ideas on packing healthier kids lunches, check out 100 Days of Real Food's resources. There are also eco lunch kit ideas here.

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