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How to Pack a Waste-Free Lunch

Lunchables®, bagged chips, juice-in-a-bag, plastic sandwich bags... bottled drinks, to-go food containers, utensils… It’s items like these that can make lunchtime the most wasteful part of the day, whether you’re a kid or a grown-up.

Never fear—our waste-free lunch guide is here!

In this guide: 

The Lunch Waste Problem

Top Waste-Free Lunch Essentials

How to Avoid Poison Plastics

How Boulder County is Reducing School Lunch Waste


What's the Problem?

According to the EPA, the typical American school kid creates 67 pounds of discarded lunch packaging waste per school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds of plastic, paper, and other non-food materials for just one average-sized elementary school.  

Work lunches aren’t exempt from the waste factor either, especially since adults often grab lunch—and all kinds of one-time-use items—on-the-go.

The goal is to make our lunches look less like this… 

… and more like this … 

Waste-Free Lunch Essentials

For a small one-time investment, these reusable items can save you about $417 annually!

Tool # 1: A Reusable Lunchbox

Ditch the brown bags for a safe, non-toxic reusable lunch carrier.

Tool # 2: Safe, Reusable Food Containers

Say bye-bye to single-serving disposables and to-go containers and hello to all the wonderful reusable options out there like stainless steel, Pyrex®, and non-toxic plastic containers. Plus, you’ll save money by buying in bulk and portioning out your own snacks.

Tool # 3: Safe, Reusable Drink Containers

Buy drinks in bulk and fill up your own reusable bottles to avoid non-recyclable foil drink pouches and other one-time-use bottled drinks.

Tool # 4: Reusable Sandwich Wraps and Snack Bags

You’ll never need to buy another plastic baggie again with options such as organic cloth and safe (BPA-free) plastic sandwich wraps and snack pouches.

Tool # 5: Utensils and Napkins

Reusable plastic sporks, sustainable bamboo utensils, and organic cotton napkins are just a few options.

Avoiding Poison Plastics

When you’re purchasing reusable lunch boxes…

Watch out for PVC.

Many lunch sacks have a PVC lining to help with insulation. Avoid products that say “vinyl” or have the letter “V” with a #3 recycling symbol on them. If you can’t find a label, check with the manufacturer.

Your safest bet: Look for the keywords “PVC-free,” "BPA-free," “vinyl-free,” and “lead-free,” or purchase stainless steel, fabric, or neoprene (the wetsuit material) lunch sacks. Safe plastics include #1 PET, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 PP. (In other words, avoid #3 PVC or V, #6 PS, and #7 PC)

Another wonderful resource: Check out the Center for Health, Environment and Justice's (CHEJ) Back-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies for more on how to identify PVC, as well as a comprehensive list of retailers and manufacturers selling non-toxic school supplies.

When you’re purchasing reusable sandwich and snack bags…

Watch out for PVC. Avoid products that say “vinyl” or have the letter “V” with a #3 recycling symbol on them. If you can’t find a label, check with the manufacturer.

Your safest bet: If you prefer plastic, make sure your item is made of one of these types of plastics: #1 PET, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, #5 PP, or nylon, and look for the keywords “BPA-free,” “phthalate-free,” “lead-free,” and “PVC-free.” Hemp and organic cotton wraps are also great alternatives.

When you’re purchasing a reusable water bottle…

Watch out for BPA. This known hormone-disrupter has made its way into all kinds of products and is often found in plastic drink bottles and in the liners of aluminum bottles.

Your safest bet: Purchase an unlined/uncoated stainless steel water bottle -- they won’t leach. If you want a lighter alternative, try an aluminum bottle, but if it has a lining/coating make sure it's BPA-free. If you prefer plastic, avoid #7 PC (polycarbonate) and choose a BPA-free reusable bottle made of one the following instead: #1 PET, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 PP.

Confused about which plastics are safe?

Download our handy Pocket Guide to Plastics.

Did you know?

When plastics of any resin number (#1 - #7) are exposed to heat, they can release chemicals and contaminate your food or drink. To prevent this, wash your plastic reusables in cold water only and never put them in the dishwasher or microwave and do not leave them in the sun.

Sustainable Lunch Projects in Boulder County

Eco-Cycle, Boulder County, and school districts, have teamed up to provide cool school programs to teach future generations about the impact of their everyday lunch choices. Here are a few examples:

  • A Waste-Free Lunch contest among elementary schools

  • Bulk milk dispensers and reusable dining ware in lunchrooms

  • Composting of organic waste in lunchrooms, kitchens, and beyond

  • Schools diverting two-thirds of all their waste through Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools program

Visit www.ecocycle.org/atschool to learn more about Eco-Cycle’s schools programs.

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