By Sarene Marshall, The Nature Conservancy
There’s a running joke that nothing gets thrown away in our family.
Initially, these values emerged from necessity: my Depression-era great-grandparents and grandparents had no choice but to get by with very little, and to make everything last as long as possible. My great-grandmother was quite proud of how far she could once stretch a few cents for dinner by relying on free hot water and ketchup packets (instant “tomato soup”!) and a re-used tea bag. And my grandfather was famous for his use of whittled-down pencils and the reverse side of grocery receipts as scratch paper.
While my own mother did not face the macroeconomic struggles that her parents did, as a single mom during the gasoline shortage days of the 1970s, she certainly had to make every dollar she earned stretch further than the average person.
The challenge was made somewhat easier when she turned to selling Tupperware to support the family. Not only did that job (which she’s now held for 40 years) afford her much-needed income, but it came with the benefit of a vast array of containers meant to be reused, and guaranteed to last for life. When these little bowls, boxes and cups entered our home, out went the need for disposable (and pricey) sandwich wrap, baggies or bottled drinks. Not only were we saving money, we were keeping heaps of unnecessary trash out of landfills.
It was this upbringing, steeped in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mindset – long before it was terribly fashionable, I’ll admit – that really propelled me into my career in conservation. And it is this set of family values that I am deeply committed to imparting to our own girls (ages 6 and 8). They’ve become quite the little experts in recycling and composting at home, but – with more than half their day spent at school – the classroom and cafeteria are key venues for them to carry forward these practices.
One thing we can do about that from home is employ a “Trash-Free Lunch” rule. Our kids carry cloth napkins to school, and their sandwiches, snacks, and drinks get packed in long-lasting, leak-proof containers. Our mainstays are Tupperware sandwich containers (which are not only reusable, but keep PB&J and tuna salad from getting smashed) and Thermos containers for warm meals in winter. We buy or make most things (carrots, chips, applesauce, pudding) in larger quantities and divide them into single serving containers ourselves. We’ve even found reusable, durable alternatives to zip-top bags!
Foods from home can be just as fun as many of those cartoon-clad pre-packaged items. Letting kids get into the action – by choosing colorful containers and selecting their own lunch fixings – can definitely up their excitement and buy-in. And they learn more than just to care for the earth this way – packing lunch and bringing home their containers can help kids develop nutritional awareness (How many cookies in a serving? Have all the food groups been covered?), not to mention the responsibility of keeping track of their belongings. Recognizing the manifold lessons, some schools have even taken steps to institutionalize “trash-free” lunch days, and used them as a source of healthy, educational competitions.
Given the way I was raised, this approach seems a second-nature way to reduce waste, but I was surprised to learn just how much money we save over single-serving containers. It also turns out that this strategy is usually healthier.