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Reducing Plastic Waste in Packed Lunches

When I was working as a relief teacher in Primary schools, I would frequently find myself on playground duties. This put me in the perfect position to observe the types of food which children were consuming and the volume of waste generated each day. It is the latter which I will discuss in this article.

school_lunches

Of particular concern was the amount of plastic waste which found its way into the drains and from there with the next downpour of rain, to our rivers and seas. Free floating pieces of plastic-wrap (cling-wrap) were the most prevalent items in the drains.  As most of us know, plastic waste in our waterways and oceans wreaks havoc on marine life, all too often resulting in slow and painful deaths of a variety of marine birds and mammals.

As a teacher, I made it a priority to make sure that every bit of litter was securely in a bin, and I often informed classes and individuals of the hazards of plastic litter in the environment. While rubbish bins are standard issue at schools, certainly not all items make it into the bins, nor stay there. 

The “lighter than air” quality of plastic wrap, when unsecured, makes it easy for even gentle breezes to lift and blow it away from its owner. Once ‘gone’ its owner (I’ve observed) either is oblivious to its departure, or immediately disowns the item and abandons any responsibility for its whereabouts. Even if these items make it into a bin, strong winds can easily whip up the contents of un-lidded bins, whirling them upwards and blowing them to all corners of the school grounds. Also over-full bins easily result in the escape of many items.

Another issue (surprisingly) which has become a problem at many school, is the presence of crows, which being a natural scavenger, take full advantage of the waste food on offer. They routinely wait till the kids are back in the classroom, then alight upon any abandoned food scraps, and won’t hesitate to pick through any open garbage bins for edibles. Of course, they often empty out significant quantities of wrapping in the process, which then may end up in the gutters.

There are some fairly obvious strategies to address the above:

  • Reduce or eliminate the amount of plastic wrap you use in your child’s lunchbox. (See below)
  • Make your child aware of the problems associated with plastic wrap once it is in the environment, and work out ways to make sure that any wrap they use is disposed of carefully.
  • If you are aware of poor management of waste at a school, make some effort to work with targeted members of the school community to address the problem, eg work with the P&C group to “crow-proof” lids on bins; find a teacher who is environmentally aware and collaborate to develop a strategy for dealing with litter in the school grounds.

I still remember my amazement one day when a little girl asked me to help her to open a tiny tub of some sort of yogurty food. The amount in that tub must have been only about 2 tablespoons full (about 2 mouthfuls for an adult) yet that tiny quantity generated a single-use plastic tub and its peel-back lid as rubbish. Of course the mother would have paid dearly per gram of yogurt for the convenience of not having to pack it herself. To my mind this is over-packaging and resource wastage gone crazy!

It seems that the volume and number of pre wrapped foods being sold over the years has steadily increased, while the actual volume per portion has decreased.  We seem to have accepted the individual packaging of tiny portions of all sorts of foods.  So how do we reduce the amount of litter and packaging in packed lunches, whether they are for an adult or child?

  1. Avoid buying single-use serves of food. This will be easier on the budget and the environment. Lunch boxes with compartments for different items are the better way to go and can be used for years. (see photo aboe)
  2. Reuse plastic packaging. Bread bags can be used to pack sandwiches, nuts, fruit, etc, and can be washed and reused many times. Zip-lock sandwich and snack bags can likewise be reused many times.
  3. Try reusable lunch bags which are now on the market.
  4. Use cloth napkins to wrap certain items, eg dried fruit, then secure with a rubber band or reusable clip.
  5. Only wrap what needs to be wrapped! You can easily pack a bunch of grapes in the same container with some dried fruit and raw nuts without any needing to be individually wrapped.
  6. Refill water bottles rather than purchase single use ones….. and the same goes for fruit juices.
  7. Use cutlery which can be reused. If you don’t want to use pieces of your home set, buy some used cutlery (always cheap at Secondhand Shops) and train yourself and / or your child to bring them home.

Experiment and find what works best for you. With a bit of awareness, a bit of organization, and the determination to reduce the volume of packaging we discard every day, we all can make a difference.

This article was previously published on the Green Earth Group website.

Genavive_St_ClairGenavive has had a love for animals and a keen interest in food, health and the environment for most of her life. She believes that although efforts to transform old paradigms based on power, corruption and greed at times seem futile, the sincere efforts and intent of relatively few people will eventually transform our future to one based on respect and compassion for all life, including our wonderful planet.

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