Packing Trash-Free Lunches

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.

I’ll admit that the convenience of ready-to-go items has sometimes trumped our best intentions, with single-serve beverages (juice boxes and foil pouches) being our biggest downfall. And those items are even worse than many other pre-packaged products, because their containers are not usually recyclable (although Tetra Pak packages, produced by the world’s largest food-processing company, are widely recycled in Europe, few convenient options exist for reusing or recycling them in the U.S.).

As we prepared our household to transition back to the classroom, we decided to analyze the cost of this habit. Whereas a 64-ounce bottle of Trader Joe’s Apple Grape Juice costs $3.49 (5 cents per ounce) and comes in a recyclable plastic bottle, a package of eight 6-ounce boxes of the same juice costs $3.69 (8 cents per ounce). Ta-da! A lesson in economics as well. My great-grandfather, who often lectured on the per-unit cost vs. profit in a cup of coffee, would be proud.

So, as I scurried around doing Back-to-School shopping with my girls, we decided to invest in two new, fun reusable bottles, and to try to kick the juice-box habit. As you pack your first school lunches of the year, what small steps will you take towards reducing your lunch-time waste? There are many resources available to help you, your kids, and your school make different choices.

It’s surprising that, with the economy as tough as it is, more people haven’t embraced the thrifty ways of past generations – it’s good for the wallet, the waistline, and the planet. In other words, it’s common sense—or cents, as the case may be!

Sarene Marshall is managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.


Photo credit: Flickr user jodigreen via Creative Commons


Terry V.
Terry V4 years ago


Sonia Minwer-Barakat Requ

Good tips,thanks for sharing

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla4 years ago

Very important matter, thanks.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

you are doing well! great ideas and thanks!

Kelly Rogers
Kelly R5 years ago

ty for the idea. I am totally a re-cycle hound

John S.
Past Member 5 years ago

Makes sense.

Angie B.
Angela B5 years ago

There are so many types of lunchboxes now, many that come filled with their own plastic containers. It makes sense to make use of them

No Politics H.
Past Member 5 years ago

Great advice. I hope this idea spreads far and wide.

Sheri P.
Sheri P5 years ago

i wish more people were like this...

Sarah M.
Sarah M5 years ago

thanks : )