How often do we hear ourselves bemoaning the plastic world we’ve created and wishing we could go back to the good old days before our disposable culture got the better of us? I was having a few of those thoughts last night when I realized that as far as school lunches are concerned, some things may have gotten worse, but we also have some better options now than those available when I was a kid.
In 1974, way, way, way back in the day, “Back to School” meant I finally got new clothes for the year. Not that the clothes ever lived up to my fantasy of for once having a wardrobe that would make me popular. Designer jeans? Forget it. My mom didn’t let me wear pants to school until I was in 5th grade. Every year, my new duds would start out two sizes too big (to grow into) and be two sizes too small before I could have new ones. “No, I’m not preparing for a flood, you guys. Leave me alone.”
My younger sisters had it much worse. They never got new clothes as long as my hand-me-downs were still wearable, “wearable” being a very subjective term. These days, I appreciate my mom’s thrift, and of course I recognize how much easier it is on our wallets and on the planet to reuse what we already have before buying new stuff.
1974: All ABout the Vinyl
While I might not have lucked out in the clothing department, I did, however, score a brand new Dawn Doll lunch box one year, complete with matching Dawn Doll Thermos (plastic on the outside, glass on the inside!) The lunchbox was covered inside and out in shiny white vinyl, the same material Dawn herself was made from. Now, sitting here at my desk at 1am, I can still recall the smell and plasticky taste of my tuna sandwich after sitting in that lunchbox all morning. But I didn’t mind. It had the same smell as my dolls and all the other toys I loved back then.
Nowadays, we understand the dangers of PVC, aka vinyl. Yet still, so many children’s toys, clothes, and school supplies (Lunchboxes, 3-ring binders, backpacks & school bags, etc.) are made from it. Fortunately, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) puts out an annual Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies, so vinyl can be easy to avoid. (Scroll down this list to find the most recent guide.)
2010: All About the Styrofoam
Not as easy to avoid these days is Styrofoam. While I might have carried a toxic vinyl lunchbox most days in 1974, I did get to choose one hot cafeteria lunch per week (Tater Tots!), a lunch that was served on reusable plastic plates, with metal utensils, and durable plastic trays that the school washed and reused. Yeah, they were plastic, but at least we didn’t throw them away. What we did throw away were paper napkins, paper (yes, paper) straws, and cardboard milk cartons. Isn’t that enough waste?
Recently, I was shocked to learn that in the years since I was a kid, many schools have switched to throwaway Styrofoam trays and disposable plastic utensils. (Thankfully, the ‘tots have remained the same.)
But parents, teachers, and kids are fighting back against Styrofoam.
Portland, OR: Enviromom Renee Limon participated in a Styrofoam lunch tray recycling challenge. She and a group of caring parents got together and handwashed tray after tray so that they could be recycled. Her conclusion? All that washing of Styrofoam to be recyled is not sustainable. What is needed are durable trays and a high efficiency dishwasher.
Takoma Park, MD: That’s exactly what a student group at Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland are fighting for. For over a year, the Young Activist Club has been campaigning for durable lunch trays and the installation of a tray washer. The Club has raised over $10,000 towards the project and consulted with a design consultant to find out the exact cost of the project. In June of this year, the Takoma Park Mayor and City Council passed a resolution to ban use of city funds to purchase polystyrene food service ware. Nevertheless, despite all their efforts and support, the county school district refuses to consider switching to reusables, insisting that the project will cost more than the club estimates.
New York City, NY: The Styrofoam Out of Schools campaign has succeeded in instituting Trayless Tuesdays. On those days, all 1,500 NYC schools will serve lunch on recyclable paper instead of Styrofoam. It’s a small step, to be sure. But sometimes baby steps are what is needed. Unfortunately, NYC does not have any composting program, so compostable trays are not an option. The campaign is pushing for reusable trays in schools that already have washers and recyclable cardboard trays in schools that do not.
(And if there’s any doubt in your mind that Styrofoam is not good for you, check out this question posted to Yahoo! Answers by someone clearly affected by it. Stop laughing. It’s not funny.)
Solution: Bring Your Own!
One solution to the Styrofoam/vinyl/plastic problem is to send kids to school with their own reusable plastic-free lunch containers and utensils. Not only do you control the amount of plastic but also the food itself. In the years since starting this site, I have discovered a whole host of plastic-free lunch options. Here are some of my favorites:
- Used metal lunch boxes from thrift stores, Freecycle, or Craigslist. Before buying anything new, check around and see if what you need already exists in your neighborhood.
- Life Without Plastic lunch sacks and stainless containers
- Life Without Plastic insulated lunch bag
- EcoLunchbox stainless steel containers and sacks
- LunchBots stainless snack and sandwich containers
- PlanetBox stainless steel lunch boxes
More and more stainless, glass, and cloth options are becoming available these days. There’s no longer any reason to send kids to school with lunches packed in plastic.