Lunchtime at the average school, according to the EPA, creates an average of 67 pounds per day. This means the average middle school produces 40,000 pounds of trash a year just from discarded juice boxes, cookie wrappers, brown paper bags, and tiny bags of chips. That's not to mention offices, where the Lean Cuisine trays pile up in the trash alongside Styrofoam cups. It's obvious that packing a lunch saves money, but packing a waste-free lunch actually saves you more money—the cost of those baggies adds up, and individually packaged foods are not much of a bargain. Here are some ways to brown-bag it, sans brown bag.
1. Make every container in the lunch reusable. Reusable bags or retro metal lunch boxes should replace the brown bag. Instead of juice boxes or sugary cans of soda, get a reusable water bottle. Small Tupperware or other plastic containers can replace the plastic sandwich baggie. You don't have to go out and buy anything special—even just washing out the clear plastic tubs that once contained takeout and grocery items can provide containers of a variety of sizes. Start saving any plastic containers and you'll see how quickly you amass them. You'll save money by not having to buy plastic baggies or brown bags, and you'll keep plastic out of landfills and oceans.
2. Buy snacks in bulk, rather than individually wrapped. Little bags of chips, cookies, and snacks come bundled in needless packaging, when you can just purchase the large bag and stick a serving in a reusable container each morning (and you'll often get more for your money).
3. Bring your own utensils. Disposable forks, spoons, and knives add up over the year. Even the biodegradable kinds aren't great—EcoGeek breaks down the reasons they may actually be worse than regular plastic here. Best to stick with metal. You can even try a cloth napkin.
4. Teach your child not to waste food. That's why reusable containers are great—if there are any carrot sticks or chips that aren't eaten, they can be saved for later—easier than in a plastic bag. Waste-free Lunches recommends slicing fruit and veggie sticks to prevent kids from taking two bites out of an apple and throwing the whole thing away. Just avoid those wasteful bags of presliced apples and other fruits—skip the extra packaging and expense, and slice 'em up yourself the night before at home, with a sprinkle of lemon juice to prevent browning. I've previously written about 9 ways to prevent food waste.
5. Make a healthy, organic lunch that won't get traded for a Lunchables. If you're packing for kids, involve them in the process, from grocery shopping to preparation to packing. You can buy all the organic peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread in the world, but if it's boring, it's bound to get traded—or worse, thrown away. Good Housekeeping offers 30 lunch ideas that both kids and grown-ups will like more than processed meat and cheese.