School starts really soon and there’s no time like the present to consider waste-free lunches. Why bother with waste-free lunches? Does it really make a difference if your child’s lunch is waste-free? It makes a huge difference. Consider the following…
Lots o’ packaging garbage in packed lunches:
According to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation each typical school student produces 45 to 90 pounds of garbage a year related to disposable lunches.
Waste-Free Lunches came up with much the same figures, estimating that the average child with a packed lunch generates a whopping 67 pounds of waste per school year (that’s about 19,000 lbs of garbage per each average elementary school).
Hot lunches too:
It’s just not packed lunches either. An Illinois teacher vowed last year to eat exactly what her students eat – school lunches – for the whole of 2010 and she blogs about it. The resulting blog, Fed Up With Lunch, is horrific enough if all you do is see the food this teacher is eating, but also shocking is the waste generated by school lunches. My son goes to a school without a school lunch option, so he’s always taken a packed lunch. That said, I hadn’t seen real school lunches since I was a kid. Fed Up With Lunches blogger, Mrs. Q shows pictures and it’s insane. The food is terrible but the waste is crazy. I remember food on trays when I was a kid. Well, nowadays, everything in school lunches is packaged to the max now.
Loads of food waste:
Garbage is a huge issue but so is food waste. A recent issue of Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter from the University of Minnesota notes that, “The food waste produced in the United States each day would fill the Rose Bowl stadium to the top.”
It’s hard to get an exact figure about school food waste, because no one is following school kids around as they toss food. However, when one middle school in Connecticut set up a compost program, (pdf) they realized that kitchen prep scraps were averaging about 17– 20 pounds of waste per day while plate scrapings came up to about 28 pound per day. Guess how many students? Just 650. That’s about 48 pounds of food waste per day, for under 1,000 kids.
There’s more to it than food and food packaging:
Trays, plastic silverware and other food holders also pose a problem. For example, recently, the Alexandria City Public Schools, in Alexandria, Virginia, decided to replace polystyrene trays with compostable paper “boats.” The switch saved the district about $7,000 but more importantly will keep about 500,000 plastic (never-break-down) trays out of our landfills. That’s great for Alexandria, but consider all the other school districts who are still tossing out old trays. It’s a big deal.
And what about something as simple as milk? A typical smaller school cafeteria can easily distribute 1,000+ paper cartons of milk weekly. If there’s no recycling or if kids aren’t taught to recycle, all those old cartons end up in the landfill.
How trashy are school lunches overall?
I’d say it’s impossible to tell. You can estimate how lame it is though. For example, in my area, Portland, Oregon, over 5 million hot lunches are served per year. Lord knows how many packed lunches fit into the equation (no one tracks that). PLUS we have a lot of homeschoolers here, and while they may create less trash overall then schooled peers, they go on field trips and trust me I’ve seen some ultra wasteful homeschool gathering.
So, we’ve got hot lunches, packed lunches, homeschoolers and when you consider all the above figures, scads of trash and food waste. Add my area to the rest of the country, and it’s not looking great. School lunches can make a HUGE difference.
Your one kid alone gives you about 180+ chances per year to either make a nice positive eco-difference or trash the planet a whole lot. Which path do you want to take?
Stay tuned; tips on reducing trash in packed and hot school lunches coming soon.