Back to School With Plastic-Free Lunches

By Sandra Curtis

What do you think you’d observe if you stood by the trash can in the school cafeteria as the kids hastily finished their lunches and rushed off to the playground? Most likely, lots of perfectly good apples and bananas, and lots of sandwiches, would be getting tossed after just a bite or two.

Keep looking, and you’ll see sandwiches packed in plastic wrap or baggies; cookies and crackers in plastic wrap, juice pouches or cartons with plastic-wrapped plastic straws, and plastic water and juice bottled—all tossed in the trash.

RELATED: Plastic-Free Sandwich and Snack Baggies and Containers

What’s a parent to do to ensure their child gets good nutrition, limits food waste and reduces the amount of single-use disposable plastic in school lunches?

To help families reduce their plastic footprint, the Kokua Hawai’I Foundation is promoting a Plastic Free Hawai‘i, and a menu of resources and tools that includes a downloadable Commitment Card for schools, businesses, organizations and families. Commitment No. 6:

Pack Waste-Free Lunches

Let’s look at some food waste numbers from Kokua. Estimates of waste for the average school-age child with a disposable lunch per school year is 67 pounds. That’s equal to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school. That comes to 4.6 billion pounds of lunch waste each year that American kids throw away. 

By switching to whole foods, bulk shopping, and reusable containers, not only are meals healthier, but waste is reduced and money is saved. Wastefreelunches.org calculates that almost $1.50 a day per person can be saved, or $246.60 per year. Those numbers add up quickly and are real savings for families to use on other needed items.

What are the top recommendations for packing healthy, low-waste lunches? 

PPC and Kokua heartily endorse:

  • Fresh, seasonal, locally grown fruits and veggies
  • Dried fruits and nuts
  • Whole foods in their own packaging (an apple or banana comes in its own wrapper!)
  • Whole grains: brown rice, whole multi-grain breads, and pasta
  • Filtered tap water or milk

And what do we recommend for a Waste-Free Lunch Kit? 

  • Durable lunchbox or bag
  • Reusable food containers – Food grade stainless steel
  • Refillable drink bottle – Food grade stainless steel or glass preferably
  • Reusable fork and spoon – bamboo or Food grade stainless steel
  • Cloth napkin

Where to look for Lunch Kit products:

  • PFH To-Go Ware Set
  • Planet Box 
  • Bentology
  • ECOLunchBox
  • Reuseit.com 
  • Planet Wise  
  • Klean Kanteen

Look for products that contain NO:

  • Aluminum
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) or it’s substitutes (BPS) - BPA-free plastic may have other chemicals so we suggest avoiding plastic bottles completely
  • Lead
  • Phthalates
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Though tempting for their ease, avoid such items as:

  • Individually wrapped snacks
  • Plastic baggies – use wax bags instead
  • Single-use, disposable forks, spoons, and straws – Try bamboo, stainless steel straws or no straws at all!
  • Bottled water, sodas, and juice boxes
  • Sugary drinks and sweets
  • Refined grains, processed foods
  • Be on the lookout for the “Red Flag” Ingredients which are: high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils (in many brands of peanut butter), trans-fats, artificial colors and flavors

Check out the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation’s Resources page for the Healthy Snacks & Waste-Free Classroom Celebrations and Healthy & Waste-Free Lunches tip sheets.


Sandra Curtis is PPC's Director of Innovative Projects.