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The Sandwich Bag Dilemma

The Sandwich Bag Dilemma

Figuring out the greenest lunchboxes to use was easy. But how to wrap the food that goes into the lunchbox? This has been my great challenge. It’s the kind of dilemma that makes me want to clamp shut my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and hum loudly. So with a brave foot forward, I present my issues.

It is estimated that on average a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That equates to 18,760 pounds of lunch waste for just one average-size elementary school. OK, so you just pack the food in reusable containers, right? Sigh. After comprehensively researching a story I wrote, Easy Greening: Kitchen Plastic, I just can’t, in good conscience, pack my kids’ food in plastic containers with their threat of potential toxins. And try sending a glass or ceramic container in a lunch to a public elementary school in Brooklyn–it just doesn’t quite fly.

Even if I weren’t concerned about the waste factor in using plastic wrap or baggies–the health concerns are the dealbreaker. Which brings me to the the heartache known as Wrap-n-Mat. I thought this product would be my salvation: a fantastic idea that involves a reusable, folding fabric mat to wrap sandwiches in. But sadly, it is lined in your choice of vinyl. No petroleum products cradling my kids sandwich, thanks. To be fair to Wrap-n-Mat, they do offer non-chlorinated vinyls, but in my book, vinyl is vinyl is still a petroleum product. So there I was, wrapping my first-grader’s sandwich with a paper towel before putting in a sandwich bag, which I could then wash and reuse. It was all starting to feel very neurotic.

Then I began thinking about wax paper. Only to find out that many wax papers are coated with a synthetic (yes, petroleum-based) wax, although there are some great and healthy, all natural brands of waxed paper increasingly available, like Natural Value Wax Paper. But with wax paper you need to use even more to wrap a sandwich because you kind of have to double wrap it–yes, adding to the trash problem. I tried washing it and reusing it, and I would suggest that you not try that at home.

But I really did love that Wrap-n-Mat. So after a lot of head scratching, I have come up with yet another kooky solution, but I think it will really work. I stumbled across this smart and charming blog post at The Small Object about how to make your own reusable sandwich wrap. She chose to use a vinyl coated fabric, but I had an idea to get around that. At first I though about just using fabric and tossing it in the wash as needed, but figured that the energy used for the wash wouldn’t pay off. So how about making the mat in an unlined cotton canvas, and then lining it each day with a small strip of waxed paper?

I’m not sure if it’s the perfect solution, but the amount of wax paper would be minimal, the wrap wouldn’t require frequent washing, and the sandwiches wouldn’t be cuddling with petroleum. What do you think? I’ll let you know how it works, and in the meantime, I bet some of you have already been through this maze. What solutions have you come up with?

Read more: Children, Diet & Nutrition, Family, Food, Green Kitchen Tips, , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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6:35AM PDT on May 8, 2013


6:20AM PDT on May 8, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

3:22AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013


12:11PM PST on Feb 5, 2013

thx for sharing:))

12:04PM PST on Feb 5, 2013

I like the idea of the wrap-n-mat, but understand your concerns. What do you think about some of the products listed here: and you might like this blog and recommendations shared there:

7:35AM PST on Jan 16, 2013

Use the paper from the bread wrapper....

4:08PM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

Aprille G
I have been looking for a truly safe product that is waterproof as well. I hoped that in the comments I would find what I was looking for. What we are BOTH looking for is the equivalent of the **Bumkins proprietary waterproof fabric**. I of course don't trust anyone that doesn't state the name of the "ingredients" because they could say all that ____ free stuff, but still have rat poison in it. I think I am just going to go with organic cotton, natural dyes, button closure. And just wash in the washer like I do my towels. 365 Brand, fragrance free powdered detergent & white vinegar in the fabric softener tray, air dry. I feel comfortable with that. :)

8:32PM PST on Dec 11, 2011

Wax paper sandwich bags (sold in many health food stores such as Whole Foods) have worked great for me. I've stored tomatoes pieces and other small food bits and it doesn't soak through. I also reuse them multiple times. Made with unbleached paper, they are also biodegradable.

7:05PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

cotton canvas???

9:48PM PST on Dec 9, 2011

thanks !!!

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