The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 9, 2010

Life Without Plastic’s New Insulated Lunch Bag

Life Without Plastic's Insulated Lunch BagYesterday, I hinted at how I carried home my ice cream from Tara’s in an insulated nearly plastic-free bag. Now, perhaps you have already figured out a plastic-free way to carry hot or cold foods without losing/letting in heat. But more often than not, the choice is a nylon or neoprene bag insulated with plastic foam, right? Some are constructed out of recycled plastic, which is great.  But it’s nice to know that there is an (almost) plastic-free alternative.  That alternative? Wool.

Personally, I was excited when Jay from the company Life Without Plastic sent me information about his new locally-produced insulated wool lunch bag. (Locally-produced means made in Canada, where Life Without Plastic is based, rather than [for those of us in North America] overseas.)

Life Without Plastic's Insulated Lunch Bag

Life Without Plastic's Insulated Lunch Bag

In the interest of full disclosure, please note that Life Without Plastic is a Fake Plastic Fish sponsor. But there’s a reason for that. It is a rockin’ company whose mission is to help stem the tide of plastic pollution. I met Jay in person at the San Francisco Green Festival last year, and we had fun watching out for plastic-free products and trying on the Bag Monster costume.

But back to the bag.  The only plastic is the 2% Spandex in the otherwise cotton denim fabric (which Jay says they will try and change to 100% cotton in the next run.) The removable snap-on lining is made from unbleached cotton muslin, and the insulation is pure wool. What’s more, committed to eliminating all plastic waste as much as possible, Jay shipped me this bag to try out using zero plastic packaging. No plastic tape. Not even a plastic sticker or address pocket on the box.

Life Without Plastic's Insulated Lunch Bag

So the question is, does the bag actually work? How does it compare to plastic foam insulated lunch bags? I did a couple of experiments. First, I found three mason jars that were exactly the same size and shape and filled them with water. Next, I refrigerated them until the water in each was exactly 40° F.

mason jars filled with water

I put one Mason jar into the wool lunch bag, one into a plastic foam lunch bag, and the final jar I left out as a control. It was all extremely scientific, I must say.

mason jars filled with water

After an hour, I checked the temperatures. The jar left out in the room had reached 49°. The one in the plastic bag, 47°. And the wool bag, 44°.

After three hours: Room 59°, Plastic 54°, and Wool 52°.

After five hours: Room 62°, Plastic 55°, and Wool 55°.

The verdict? Neither of these bags alone (without adding ice or some other temperature lowering substance) kept the water as cold as we might have expected. But the fact is that the wool kept the jar colder for longer than the plastic bag. So we can conclude that it works as least as well.

But what about heat? After letting the jars all reach the same room temperature, I heated them in the microwave to 113° F.

mason jars in microwave

Here are the results of that test.

One hour later: Room 90°, Plastic 96°, and Wool 97°.

Three hours later: Room 75°, Plastic 82°, and Wool 83°.

Once again, the wool bag performed at least as well as the plastic one. (I didn’t do a third test because honesty I forgot about the bags and jars after that!)

Conclusion: the wool and the plastic performed equally as well.

I’m thinking that with a source of cold in the bag, it would perform even better.  And I have some ideas for what that source could be.  We don’t want to use ice because it will melt if it’s not in a plastic bag.  (Of course, if you have an old plastic bag lying around, you could just repurpose that as an ice pack.)  And we don’t want to use a vinyl gel pack, right?  How about filling a small jar with water and freezing it?  Tempered glass jars, I have found from experience, do fine in the freezer as long as you don’t heat them quickly after taking them out.  You must also leave some room in the top for expansion.  Do not fill it all the way up!

You could put the jar inside a thick sock for added protection.  But if you think a sock would not be enough to keep a glass jar from breaking in the hands of a rough child, how about repurposing a used plastic bottle?  There certainly are quite a few around.  Of course, I’d never suggest buying a new one!

As for heat, what about using a heated rice sock like those I posted about two weeks ago? (I didn’t suggest the cold rice sock above because from my experience, I don’t think they get cold enough to really do the job.)

I haven’t tried out either of these methods because I just thought of them right now as I’m writing this post.  What do you think?  Do you have other ideas/suggestions for keeping foods hot or cold on the go?  Or is this not an issue for you?

Disclosure:  I have joined the Life Without Plastic affiliate program, so if you purchase via links on this website, you will help support My Plastic-Free Life financially.  Thanks in advance!

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Classic stainless steel bento boxes and cotton lunch bags.

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John T
9 years ago

I make bread in batches of six loaves and then freeze them in plastic bags. Any suggestions for alternatives for keeping them fresh in the freezer for about three weeks?

Kawaii Kids
9 years ago

Your scientific method is very “professional”. At least you know which one is better. You can safely go with the wool, as it works just as good as the plastic.

Alison @ Femita
13 years ago

I pack my daughter’s lunch in an Easy Lunchbox System box, because it’s eco-friendly and free from chemicals. To keep it cool I freeze the drink that goes with it. It will have the right temperature at lunchtime, while your kid’s lunch is still fresh.

13 years ago

I am interested in making and using rice socks. Just to clarify, it’s flannel on outside, fleece on the inside, and filled with rice. Then you put the sock in the freezer, and bring it out when it’s time to pack lunch. Is that right?

I’d love to purchase a wool lunchbag, but at $55 it’s beyond my current budget. Probably most of you have read Daniel Goleman’s book, Ecological Intelligence. He discusses the many aspects we now must factor in when making a purchase. I see it as a 5 pointed star, each point having an aspect that we consider with purchases. Cost, quality, health impacts, environmental impacts, and sociological impacts (such as how workers and our four legged friends even are treated). For some, they just can’t get past cost because of budget constraints. That is frustrating. At least we can have awareness of the multiple considerations we can make as we buy things.

Thanks for the great information at this site!

8 years ago
Reply to  Reenie

Don’t forget that fleece is made from plastic…

Sarah S
13 years ago

Thanks Beth and Jay for getting back to me about the washing issue.

Jay Sinha
13 years ago

Thanks Beth for your rockin’ science-based review – we are all constantly learning from you – and thank you everyone for your comments and questions on our insulated bag. I’ll just throw in our two cents on the questions and comments raised.

But before I jump into that, I’ll give some overview on the making of the bag that will help address some of the questions and comments. The bag was our first try at developing a custom insulated bag like this. It was made by a fantastic coop of skilled immigrant women based in Ottawa, Canada. We wanted an insulated bag that was completely devoid of plastic. And we thought that is what we were getting until we received the finished bags with the ingredient labels sewn in and saw there was 2% spandex. We had been under the impression the materials were all natural, but I guess we had not been completely clear. We considered not selling them, but thought that would be such a waste – it’s almost devoid of plastic. So the next batch will not have the spandex in them. We had originally wanted the bag to be made of organic materials as well. That would have doubled the cost, and also the head of the coop strongly suggested against this. The cotton was sourced from India, and in her experience she did not feel we could be absolutely certain that it actually was organic (FYI, both she and I have Indian background). So we’ll see for the next batch, but keep in mind that an organic locally made bag will be significantly more expensive.

Sarah S, I’ll just expand a bit on Beth’s explanation of the washing instructions. As the washing instructions indicate, it’s important that for the first wash, you add some salt to the water to fix the color because the denim has not been pre-washed (another surprise for us, but in our next batch it will be!). Other than the color, the concern with the washing machine is the wool, and that it might bunch up or shrink. As I mentioned to Beth, we have friends who have washed the bags in the machine and they were just fine. Yes, the key is to wash it in COLD water on the GENTLE cycle, as this should preserve the wool fine (though we cannot guarantee this).

Now on to the wool issue. Thank you Anna @Green Talk and Leah for your awesome eye-opening comments on the wool industry. I’m sorry to say that this is not something we looked into in detail. We totally agree on the need to reduce unnecessary suffering in all its forms. We know the coop sources the wool lining from a company they trust in Toronto, but I can’t tell you more than that right now. We have not researched the wool industry and I actually wasn’t aware of all the details you mention, but I am not surprised, as most large scale industry is problematic. We will certainly look into this for the next batch. We actually live in the country and we have organic farmer friends who have sheep – and they are treated very well (certainly no unethical practices). Maybe we could see about sourcing the wool from them. I really don’t have a response for vegans who are uncomfortable using wool. This is obviously a personal decision that we completely respect.

And about cooling techniques – we agree with Anna @Green Talk’s method of using a stainless steel bottle filled with very cold water. This is what we have used in our son’s bag and it works quite well. Thank you Sarah, for the cold rice sock technique – sounds great and we will try it out.

So overall, we feel this bag is a good start as an alternative to plastic insulated lunch bags. Thank you all for helping us to make it better all the time!

13 years ago

The cold rice socks can work really well. I made my daughter a bag for her food to travel in (when she was tiny and we were carting around frozen ice cubes of pureed food). The bag is flannel on the outside and fleece on the inside (so not plastic-free, but made from old fabrics I had lying around), then I made 2 “rice socks” that are the same diameter of the bag and sandwiched the food carrier between them, hours later the food was still frozen (which means it worked too well, but I would think that if you used enough rice socks in a well insulated bag, you would keep the food pretty cold.

13 years ago

I agree with what someone else said above: I am so glad you are around keeping the rest of us on our toes!

For myself, I had a terrible lapse of plastic-free consciousness today. I bought a metronome at a music store. Now, not only was the metronome made of plastic, but it was also (of course) WRAPPED in plastic. It honestly didn’t even occur to me until I was out the store and halfway home, I was just so lost in all the beautiful instruments in the store, and focused on this idea of getting a metronome. Completely did not think it through.

Sometimes I think about giving up on the whole thing entirely, but it cheers me that people like yourself are out there seeking out options like this wool lunch bag. Thank you!

13 years ago

My daughter uses an insulated lunch bag for daycare. I am thrilled to learn about these bags, and I am even more excited that they’re made by a Canadian company. We Canadians really are super-cool. Or super-hot, I guess, depending.

Anyways, this is fabulous news, and I will absolutely look into them. I have concerns about my kid’s current lunch bag, which is plastic, but I hadn’t seen any good alternatives. This looks like it totally fits the bill.

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Thanks to everyone for educating me about wool. I will ask Jay about the source of the wool. Perhaps he can comment here tomorrow.

Sarah S, Jay got back to me tonight about the washing question. Here is what he wrote me:

“Re the washing machine, we don’t recommend it because of the wool, which can shrink and bunch up, but we have friends who have done and the bag and wool have actually survived just fine.”

I think you would want to make sure the bag was washed in cold water and not agitated too much.

Condo Blues, the kitty is actually Arya. (Note tiny bit of white on paw.) She is the explorer. Soots just lies around looking impressive. When strangers come over, Arya is all over them and their shoes. Soots is hiding under the bed.

Deanna Piercy
13 years ago

I really enjoyed reading this and appreciate your scientific experiments. I don’t work outside the home and my son and husband (for whom I pack daily lunches) have a refrigerator at work so this isn’t a concern for me. Still, I was quite interested to learn that wool is such a good insulator, although that shouldn’t have surprised me. We once lived in an old house where part of the original insulation was wool. So, when are you going to build a couple of small buildings and test wool vs. foam board insulation? ;)

Keep up the good work; you are an inspiration.

13 years ago

I love your hard work, however, my one concern is the use of wool. We are all progressives here who want to make the world a better place. That includes reducing unnecessary suffering, in all its forms.

It is a proven fact that most wool industries are extremely inhumane. Their practices range from bad to horribly inhumane. One would think that merely shearing wool from the back of a sheep is innocuous however, big animal business always finds a way to put profits ahead of humane-ness. “Mulesing” is just one awful practice where chunks of flesh are carved out of a sheep’s rump (without anesthetic) to prevent flies. Often hundreds of sheep are left dying, or rotting away with injuries because of serious neglect and lack of vet care.

The neglect, abuse and painful procedures the sheeps endure, are just not worth using wool.

Recycled fibers from cloth, newsprint, rubber, etc, might be a better option…

13 years ago

I haven’t really thought about this side of plastics yet – we’re still working to get disposable plastics out of our lives, and figure the re-usable plastic products are the stage after that. In the meanwhile, we’re also reducing plastic products that are reusable, but not as much as we probably should.

Once again, you’re helping keep the thousands of us out here reading your blog on our toes :-)

13 years ago

This is not currently an issue for me however I love having the answer to questions I don’t have yet. I will undoubtibly go on a piknit at some point or ever have children that wil be in need of lunches.
As for going plastic free, I’ve joined the club that I thought for a split second I might be the creator of….. In Toronto (were I lived last summer) the created a bylaw that forces all end consumers to buy plastic bags for 5cents, but this excludes produce bags! So I thought to myself “what if I made my own” then a stroke of genius hit me. Why not live plastic free, so I googled and found I was not the first to of thought of this. Oh well, it only means that there is a wealth of info for my quest. However living in Paris has proven that it is definitely more difficult. No soap refills – ANYWHERE! Pasta and flour took 8 solid hours of walking and asking and asking and asking until I found a small 15 bin bulk section.

Anna @Green Talk
13 years ago

Wool, a great insulator, comes with its own problems. Vegan’s won’t use it. In addition, the wool industry has been accused of unethical treatment of sheep. Is the wool organic? Were the sheep treated with any synthetic hormones to build a better sheep? Were the sheep dipped in pesticides?

Also, how do you deal with moths with the wool? (Remember, that sweater with a hole in it?)

From previous posts, Jay’s company seems very ethical so I would think he looked into the wool issues. Just curious.

As for keeping food cold, you can use a stainless steel bottle and fill it with water. Keep it in the fridge, and then use it in the bag. I don’t know if it would condensate, making the bag wet.

Great fine.

Condo Blues
13 years ago

How about putting your lunch bag in the refrigerator? That’s what I do. I have to my lunch bag is usually a repurposed paper store bag w/ handles from Restoration Hardware.

Soots makes a fabulous scientific assistant!

Pure Mothers
13 years ago

The only problem with these great plastic-free alternative products is that it turns me into Consumer Monster and I want, want, want. :-) And, that’s no good either. If I need to get a lunch bag for my son as he gets to be school age, I will get this one though. Good work, Beth- and Jay!

13 years ago

I don’t usually bother with an insulated bag, unless it’s a very hot day. (It’s not usually warm enough in Maine to melt ice cream anyway). I don’t get why the only kind of “lunch box” you can buy kids these days is a (vinyl and nylon) cooler bag. How did we manage to avoid food poisoning from our room-temperature peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all those years, but now they have to be kept cold? I just made my kids (fabric) lunch bags with a (plastic) zipper and handles, which are a million times better because they: are flexible and don’t take up a ton of space when empty; can be thrown in the washing machine and don’t get the mold gunk that forms in the corners of the vinyl; are custom made to fit the kind of lunch containers we have; and are super cute and unlikely to get mixed up with all the identical cammo LL Bean lunch coolers out there. For myself, I have a lunch bag with no closure or handles that I made out of a dish towel.

13 years ago

First you proved yourself an accomplished journalist. Then you added a layer of professional-quality photography to that. You went after a big business (Brita) and prevailed. Throughout you have impressed us all with your sense of humor and willingness to dress up in ridiculous outfits. Now you are getting a name for yourself as a scientist. Sure, most scientists don’t forget about their experiments, but you are just getting started and, unlike many scientists, you admitted forgetting!

You are up against a heck of an opponent – plastic. It can shape-shift into 1,000 forms! But keep up your work and the plastic companies may soon ban your name from mention in their board rooms.

Sarah S
13 years ago

I’ve got a toddler, and we have had a big issue with carrying milk around for him. Inevitably, his sippy cup will leak milk into whatever we’re carrying it in. With other lunch bags I’ve used, the milk has been able to get inside the plastic lining and curdles and the bag stinks and is unusable. Washing them in a washing machine doesn’t help.

I see the washing instructions on this indicate that the liner is removable and machine washable, which is great, but that the outer part has to be hand washed in cold water, which I’m not sure would cut it for us. If it’s just denim and spandex, I wonder why can’t it go in the washing machine?