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Green school lunches (Part 1) – Moving towards zero-waste by reducing trash

Updated on July 18, 2012

Note: All text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.

Some studies estimate that half of all school waste is generated in the cafeteria – leftover food, packaging, boxes, and service items. Unless it’s recycled or composted, all of this waste ends up in the landfill.

Go for zero-waste by packing food in reusable (and eventually recyclable) containers and by bringing your own napkin and silverware.
Go for zero-waste by packing food in reusable (and eventually recyclable) containers and by bringing your own napkin and silverware. | Source

Why should you make an effort to reduce cafeteria waste?

  • In a landfill, food and other waste is sealed and undergoes anaerobic decomposition, which generates methane, carbon dioxide, and other powerful greenhouse gases.
  • Landfills take up space, and as space in existing landfills runs out, many cities are having trouble figuring out where to put their waste.
  • There are non-renewable resources embodied in this waste. For example, most plastics are made from petroleum.
  • Food waste has precious nutrients that could be returned to the soil.
  • Waste is costly for schools to handle. If waste can be eliminated, that means less trash hauling, and lower costs.
  • Contaminants from waste, like plastics and Styrofoam, seep into the earth, eventually reaching the groundwater, leading to possible contamination.
  • Some waste doesn’t make it to the landfill, but ends up in natural habitats or being washed into streams, rivers, oceans, where it can poison or trap wildlife.
  • Finally, wasted food is wasted money.

How can you reduce the amount of lunchtime trash headed to the landfill? The first step is always to reduce the amount of trash generated. It is easier to do this than to sort and transport the waste later. And many trash reduction ideas can also save you money. Whether students pack their lunches at home or purchase them at school, there are steps they can take to minimize trash. Tell your school community that you are striving to achieve zero-waste and you need everyone’s help, then share the following ideas with parents and administrators at your school.

Pack lunch in a reusable lunchbox or bag to reduce waste.
Pack lunch in a reusable lunchbox or bag to reduce waste. | Source

Packed lunch ideas:

  • Pack lunches in reusable containers. Bring containers home for washing. There are fancy lunch systems out there, but inexpensive (recyclable) containers can be purchased at the grocery store.
  • Pack drinks in a thermos or reusable water bottle.
  • Pack a cloth napkin and reusable plastic, metal, or bamboo servingware. Take home for washing.
  • Buy food in bulk and separate into reusable containers.
  • Reuse food packaging such as plastic cereal bags, bread bags, margarine containers, and plastic jars to get more uses before recycling. I have even figured out a way to make little snack containers out of half-gallon paper milk cartons.
  • If you have recycling and/or compost at home, but not at school, encourage your child to bring his or her waste home for proper disposal, rather than putting it in the school trash.

School-prepared lunch ideas:

Note - Your school’s food service regulations may affect which of these you can implement. For example, our district requires that we use individually-wrapped, disposable, plastic forks, rather than reusable ones, for sanitary reasons.

  • Talk to your principal or district officials about installing a dishwasher and using reusable plastic trays, servingware, and metal utensils. The EPA estimates that Styrofoam takes 500 years to decompose in a landfill. Others say it never does, but leaches toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater. 500 foam trays every day for a year really add up.
  • Explore compostable or cardboard tray options, though these are often cost-prohibitive. Cardboard will break down in two months in a landfill (
  • Use paper coffee filters or muffin cups to serve items like fruit, or if possible, offer hand-fruit in a large bowl.
  • Don’t overserve. What isn’t eaten ends up in the trash. Encourage kids to only take what they’ll eat and to eat what they take. Some reduced-price-lunch programs may require that certain foods and amounts are served.
  • Serve drinks from a large urn into washable or paper cups, or serve in recyclable or compostable containers.
  • Use napkin dispensers that minimize the number dispensed, and ask kids only to take what they need.
  • Keep track of how much food is prepared and left over (and thrown away) every day. Then use this information to estimate more accurately the amount of food to prepare.
  • Look for places to donate leftover food. Some cities have non-profit organizations that will pick up food and deliver it to soup kitchens or homeless shelters.

Once you’ve reduced your lunchtime waste as much as possible, you can turn to recycling and composting. See the links below to my other hubs that cover these topics. Remember that any steps you take bring you closer to zero-waste. Even if you never get there, you can make significant reductions that will help reduce greenhouse gases related to landfill decomposition. In addition, any steps you take will educate the kids at your school and set them on a life-long path to sustainable living.


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    • marthamuldoon profile image

      marthamuldoon 5 years ago from Austin, TX

      Thanks for the comment. In our cafeteria, it often comes down to personnel, rather than the number of trays. If they don't have enough people to load and run the dishwasher, they'll go back to styrofoam/disposable. You might ask if that's the problem, and if there's some way to solve it. Or if your school does need more trays, maybe you can help raise money to purchase more. The styrofoam tray issue is a big one, and many schools are changing to reusable or compostable trays.

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      This is a great article. It kills me to see all the styrofoam trays that come out of our school cafeteria. They don't have enough of the washable ones, so they rely on the disposable, which makes no sense. If they have to buy disposable, then I can't see why they don't buy more washable trays. There are a lot of areas that can be improved and you have started the conversation. Thank you.