Zero-Waste Lunch

In Articles, Home, Recipes by Lori Hill0 Comments

Image credit: lunchskins

Image credit: lunchskins

Back in the Day

As a kid, I was what some would call a picky eater, but I Iike to think that I was a discriminating consumer. In other words, I wasn’t a fan of the school lunch program. So I packed my lunch. Every day. In those days, kids used metal lunch boxes with matching thermoses filled with whole cow milk. I recall having a Peanuts lunch box for many years and then ditched that for a cool, basic brown lunch bag. On special occasions, like Thanksgiving, I bought the school lunch, and remember vividly that we used silverware and real trays with various slots for your meat, vegetable, fruit and bread, similar to a Hungry Man TV dinner. After we were finished eating, we would take the trays to a conveyor belt where the cafeteria ladies used a big, industrialized machine to wash it all up.  That was the 70s.

The New Normal

Fast forward to 2010. I’m an event producer working on the Bethesda Green Awards Gala in Bethesda, Maryland. One of the award recipients that year was the Young Activist Club of Piney Branch Elementary School. They won for their efforts in trying to eliminate single-use disposable polystyrene lunch trays at their school. Single-use disposable lunch trays? Whaaaat? I was confused. Really? What happened to the reusable trays from the 70s? I didn’t get it. Not being a mom (at the time) I had no idea that lots and lots and lots of schools use disposable trays — and more — these days. And if your company has a cafeteria, you may have seen all this disposable stuff, too. It’s everywhere. Disposable trays, plates, cutlery. That’s a lot of waste. That goes to landfills or burned in incinerators. And the remnants don’t go off to some magical place. It all stays here on Earth — or the Earth’s atmosphere. For all of us to ingest or absorb because it eventually makes its way into our waterways and the air we breathe. Ugh. I just got depressed.

Look, Ma, No Waste!

Fast forward to 2014. My now step-son Bryan, a 3rd grader at Piney Branch Elementary School, shared with me how tomorrow is Zero-Waste Lunch Day at his school. No surprise, the day is being sponsored by the aforementioned and oh-so-awesome Young Activist Club. Bryan has been packing his lunch for a few years now because, like me when I was his age, he is not a fan of the cafeteria food.

Bryan carries a reusable lunch bag and a reusable water bottle every day. We used to use a reusable sandwich bag from a brand name I won’t mention, but it got a little moldy (or at least, it looked like mold), so we started using compostable disposable resealable lunch bags. Bryan claimed those bags made his sandwich soggy (I think because he was also using an ice pack), so we have switched to a reclosable sandwich bag that is plastic (please don’t judge me!) but is BPA free. But today, I just ordered him some Lunchskins, environmentally friendly reusable lunch bags. According to their site,

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]…every day, more than 20 million sandwich bags from school lunches go into landfills in the United States.[/quote]

They have been certified as lead, Bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalate-free. In addition, they save you money because they can be used hundreds of times vs. plastic bags that are often used once and then tossed. So because they are reusable, they reduce landfill waste.

Image credit: LunchBots

Image credit: LunchBots

Another great option for lunch containers are lunchbots. Made of lightweight stainless steel which is non-breakable, you can choose from single use containers or containers with two, three or four sections. I’ve ordered a few of those, too. I plan to use them in place of “doggie bags” when I eat out. While more and more restaurants are using compostable take-home and take-out containers, there are still many more that need to hop on the bandwagon, so I want to have a back-up that is light-weight and not glass (we used glass for our leftovers at home).

How to Pack a Zero-Waste Lunch

The Young Activist Club of Piney Branch Elementary School offers these tips for a zero-waste lunch:


  • Sandwiches and other food in reusable containers
  • Durable forks and spoons
  • Whole fruits without packaging
  • Drinks in refillable containers that can be reused
  • Snacks purchased in bulk and brought in reusable containers
  • Reusable ice packs
  • Cloth napkins


You don’t have to buy brand new containers. You’d be surprised at what you might have around your house. Since we don’t have our lunchskins yet, tomorrow Bryan is packing his sandwich in a 4 x 4 Corning-ware container (he’s nearly 9 and I’m not worried about it breaking). When my husband John packs his lunches, he uses small glass jars that once held jelly. I realize this might not work for young kids, but its an option for others. Durable forks and spoons can be silverware from your kitchen or purchased inexpensively at a yard sale or thrift store. Another option is bamboo. I carry To-Go ware in my purse all the time because you never know when you will need a fork, knife, spoon or chopsticks! For cloth napkins, see my tip for how you can make your own.

To avoid the waste, the Young Activist Club provides these tips

  • individually wrapped snacks (more packaging = more waste)
  • plastic baggies that are not reusable
  • disposable forks and spoons
  • straws
  • drinks in cartons or pouches


I’d love to know what you do to have a zero-waste lunch. Share your stories!

Lori Hill

Lori Hill

Lori Hill is a plant eater, trash picker upper, climate activist, wife, and mom to 2 human boys, 2 cat boys, and 1 dog boy. On a mission to do all she can to take better care of the planet, Lori created Sister Eden Media, a green lifestyle company, to inspire others to give a damn and live more gently on Earth. She shares tips on her YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and also frequently appears on television.
Lori Hill

Leave a Comment