During 2018 and 2019, researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Bologna (Italy) took time to find out how much waste was being generated during school lunches. Upwards of 53% of the foods in a school lunch were ending up in the trash. Compare this to 30% in Spain, 29% in Italy, and 23% in Sweden.
It’s not just students, either. While students generally threw out half of their produce, faculty threw away about 43%. Eggs and poultry were the two items that were the least likely to be left on the plate.
That’s just food waste. Milk boxes, juice bottles, paper bags, plastic bags, and wrappers add to the trash generated at school. Whether your student eats a hot meal prepared by the school or brings a lunch from home, the amount of waste created in a school dining room is tremendous.
As a parent, how can you reduce waste when you’re not there? Here are some tips that will boost school lunch recycling efforts with your child.
#1 – Choose a Reusable Lunch Bag
Stop using paper lunch bags. Instead, invest in a reusable lunch bag or box. You want one that is durable and easy to clean. How do you choose the best option? Start by involving your child in the decision. If you pick a lunch box or bag that isn’t appealing, it’s harder to encourage its use. You also want to consider the features and how easy they are for your child to use.
Plastic Snaps – Does your child have the strength to unfasten a plastic snap? If not, make sure the bag or box doesn’t have snaps for closures.
Velcro – Velcro closures are the easiest for young children. Wildkin makes a BPA-free velcro lunch bag in various patterns for children, including dinosaurs, emergency vehicles, trains, fish, and goofy monsters.
Zippers – Zippers may wear quickly over time. More importantly, your child needs to be able to use zippers without difficulty. If the zipper gets stuck, would your child know what to do? Would your child know to examine the seam to see if any fabric is caught and gently pry it loose?
Bento boxes are a popular idea, and they’re handy at avoiding unnecessary bags and packaging. Instead of one bag or box, several containers fit together. The top box also hides a fork and spoon.
The Koccido Bento Box Kit contains three trays with lids, the fork and spoon that fits into the cover, and a bag to carry them in. There’s also a reusable beverage bottle with a reusable straw that hooks onto the bag. Everything is leak-proof, making it a good choice for storing in a locker or cubby until lunchtime.
#2 – Choose Foods That Will Get Eaten
Make sure you provide foods that you know your son or daughter will eat. If you put in an apple hoping it will get eaten, but you know there’s only a 50/50 chance. Likely, the apple will go into the trash.
How does your child eat apples at home? If your child likes to dip them in almond butter or yogurt dip, provide the fruit dip in a small reusable container.
Portioning is also important. If your child eats half a sandwich at home, don’t send an entire sandwich. It doesn’t matter if you’re convinced your child will be hungrier due to the activities in the classroom. Send the half sandwich and include some extra snacks that your child can eat later during classroom snack time.
#3 – Skip the Sandwich Bags
Sandwich bags are handy, but they only add to the waste stream. Purchase reusable sandwich bags. They’re free of BPAs and go into the dishwasher for quick cleaning. Look for a variety pack that offers a variety of sizes. You’ll have what you need when it comes to larger sandwiches and smaller snack packs of fresh fruit.
You could also invest in Bees Wrap. This reusable sandwich wrap is made from cotton and food-safe beeswax. Wash it, hang it in the sun to dry, and reuse it. Bees Wrap lasts a year and is compostable after a year.
#4 – Invest in Reusable Water Bottles
Invest in a few reusable water bottles. Fill them the night before and pop them into the fridge. They’ll be cold and ready to pack in the morning. Your child can refill the water bottle throughout the school day at a fountain or water refilling station. If you’re worried about the school’s water quality, invest in a water bottle that has a built-in filter.
Make sure the bottle isn’t glass. It may be environmentally friendly and made from recycled materials, but there’s the chance of it smashing if it hits the ground. Stick to stainless steel or durable plastic.
#5 – Homemade Items Are Often Best
Make as many items as you can at home. If your child loves to have a granola bar for a morning snack, make a pan of them. You can place one in a recycled sandwich bag. Not only does it save money, but you also get to control the ingredients. That means you control added sugar and saturated fat levels. Plus, there’s no plastic packaging to go into the trash.
There’s another reason to make items at home. Sometimes, there are students with allergies to food items like nuts or legumes. As a result, you’re told your child cannot bring certain packaged foods to school. By making them at home, you can still package the foods your child loves, but you’ve eliminated that food allergen.
#6 – Purchase Items Made From Recycled Materials
A circular economy requires people to recycle their materials and purchase items made with recycled materials. Blue Q makes a line of reusable lunch bags that are made from 95% recycled materials. They wipe clean, and a portion of the purchase goes to charities dedicated to helping the environment.
Water bottles are another item that often contains recycled materials. Don’t overlook reusable napkins, leak-proof travel mugs, and food storage containers. They can all be made with recycled materials.
#7 – Talk to Your Child About Recycling
Make sure your child knows how to recycle everything in the lunch that’s sent from home. If the child gets a hot lunch at school, it’s just as important to discuss how to reduce waste and increase recycling efforts with those lunch items, too.
Try to get your child involved in recycling. One way to do this is by creating teachable moments. Instead of throwing away food scraps when you prepare meals, teach your child about composting. A backyard compost pile is one possible activity. Even better, research worm farming. Kids aren’t usually disgusted by invertebrates and insects. A worm farm shows them how the foods they’re not eating become a source of nutrition for these invertebrates, and the worms turn them into rich compost that helps you grow fruits and vegetables.
For other items, such as plastic wrap and sandwich bags, paper lunch bags, and juice boxes, find a video that shows how they are recycled and turned into new items. If possible, see if your child could go on a tour of a recycling facility. The educational outing may be all it takes to get your child excited about recycling.
Do you need help finding a local recycling facility or learning how to recycle the plastic, paper, metal, and glass items you’re collecting? Recycle Nation offers listings of the facilities in every region. Enter your ZIP code to get started.