The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 30, 2010

Back to School Vinyl and Styrofoam. Sometimes Retro Isn’t Cool.

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.

Beth Terry elementary school photoIn 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.

Dawn doll lunch box and Thermos

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.)

Pedro Will Make All Your Styrofoam Dreams Come True

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:

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.

You might also enjoy...


Toddler Play Wild DIll

I only post ads for products I use myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

Leave a Reply

64 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
64 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

We haven’t gone completely plastic-free yet but are working toward it. My daughter takes her lunch every day and always uses reusable containers. (No plastic for warm/hot foods, BPA free for cold ones.) We each also have our own steel water bottle and use them regularly.

It would be great to add the LunchBots to our food container regimen as I am weeding out the plastic as it wears out/breaks.

Thank you for the giveaway. I enjoy coming to your site to be inspired!


My sweetheart is not the most Eco-friendly of men, but he’s getting better. I just about have him broken of his plastic shopping bag/container addiction. He uses 3 of the bags to carry his lunch (also in a namebrand plastic container) to work……he’s so frustrating…!!!

So, if I win, I will use the LunchBot to break him of his terrible plastic habit, ONCE AND FOR ALL!!!! LOL!

And thank you so much for your website….its cured many a headache for me…



Sadly, I’ve taken over a set of the work silverware. They never get used and are in the drawer. I just wash them and bring them back every day. My 5 year old thinks it’s cool to use “mommy’s work fork”. Pathetic huh?


Great post! Being a sucker for nostalgia and fan of all things retro I carry my food in a metal lunch box. In theory, the one disadvantage is that they are not airtight like the more modern PVC boxes although I’ve never found this to be a problem for day-to-day use. There are heaps of designs from the 50s & 60s still around , many of which have become collectors items!


We recently started using Lunchskins for snacks on the go. I really like them, but want a sturdier container as most things go straight into my backpack and not a protective lunch bag. I want to offer my family a healthier alternative to plastic. Thanks so much for your blog.


Don’t forget about reusable utensils, napkins and water bottles! I pack my son’s lunch using a Four Peas lunchbox, Fabkins organic cotton napkins, Lunchbots containers, stainless steel utensils, and Klean Kanteen bottles. And of course we never use single-use containers for things such as apple sauce or yogurt!

When we go out to eat, I always make sure there is a LunchBots container in the car for taking home leftovers.


As a stay at home mom to two little ones not in school yet, I don’t really have a “lunch situation”. We occasionally do go out to eat with our friends after church, and last week I unfortunately had to leave with a styrofoam box since I had taken my To-Go ware out of my car the day before. (Last time I make that mistake!) Again, it is not really lunch, but I realized that my big church goes through enormous amounts of styrofoam cups each week. I came up with a great way to get rid of all the… Read more »

Gruppie Girl

At my children’s school, the student council (AKA fourth graders) sponsor Cloth Napkin Fridays.

It’s amazing what a little peer pressure can do! Kids went from asking my children about those “fancy cloth things” in their lunchboxes to forcing their parents to use cloth napkins in not only their lunch boxes but at home too.


I already have one LunchBot and I use the thing to death! I really would love to add to my collection, but as a recent college grad, I can’t afford more right now :(

My favorite reaction to my LuchBot is, “Are you seriously eating lunch out of a tin can?!?” It’s a great conversation starter about why to choose alternatives to plastic containers and lunch bags.


I started my job on Tuesday. I work at a school. I was thinking of this post when I walked into the lunchroom, only to find real plates, trays (i think those might be plastic, but they are reuseable) real silverware and real cups. We’re talking middle school here. I was impressed. and happy!

Lynn Fang

Beth, I usually bring my lunch, always packed in reusables. The last two times I bought lunch, I brought my own plate and asked them to serve it on there. It was scary! One person laughed at me. Another was the store manager, and I ran into him at the farmer’s market outside my work. I blogged about my experience as part of No Impact Week, and the store manager said he read my post and thought it was a good idea! So that was kind of nice. They still give me napkins though, and I still have a tough… Read more »

Meg B

I work in a rural high school and the lunch there is horrific! I refuse to put that poor quality stuff in my body, so I always bring my own lunch. I use a to-goware round tiffin set, but it is bulky and often hard to put in a bag or tote. This set looks super easy to tote around. I always talk with my students about sustainability, and I really think this set could help promote bringing healthy lunches for the kids.

Emily R

To be completely honest, I eat out for lunch, pretty much every day. Most places these days are fairly Eco-concious with their packaging, but there are certainly exceptions. I love the idea of bringing my own container to places where I know they use styrofoam, like Cheesecake Factory, where I always have leftovers.


I use resuable containers for virtually everything. My son is starting kindergarten this year and I am so ecited to make him cute little lunches in reusable containers :) I did daycare before and requested that parents only bring food if it is in reusable containers as I didn’t want all the garbage (or junk food that comes in wrappers at my house)
Most of them were pretty good and 1 has even cchanges her ways quite a bit since we met. I like to think I helped :)


You know, I hadn’t been thinking about how much plastic I use every day for lunches. It sure adds up to quite a lot between the Ziplock bags, plastic containers, and, yes, sometimes a plastic lunch sack. I do, however, pack regular silverware to use for lunches that require utensils. I use a small glass jar to keep salad dressing separate from a green salad. I also pack a cloth napkin. I find it odd that I already do some thrifty and green things with my lunches, but that I hadn’t thought about all the plastic containers that house nearly… Read more »

Amy R

I don’t eat at work or school, but when I take my kids’ lunches out with us, I use reusable containers that I bring home and wash.


Looks like the Senate rejected the bag ban bill:


We don’t have a kitchen at our son’s school that makes lunches, all kids bring theirs with them. But we do make sure both our sons use reusable water bottles (4 years and running!), we package up everything in containers that get washed at home. Unfortunately, the only soy yogurt they can have only comes in individual pots, but we wash those at home too and use them for paint pots or for starting herb seeds.


I am in college, and I bring my own lunch to eat between classes. I have pyrex at the moment, which is better than plastic, but the lids are still plastic and I’d like to avoid it at all costs. I’d like to have a lunchbots container just to carry with me llike you do, and so I can completely eliminate plastic from my lunch/eating out routines.

Yepp, pretty boring but hey, that’s community college.


My boss really supports reducing waste. He asked us to donate extra plates, bowls, mugs and utensils which are kept in the kitchen cupboards. All these are available for the staff to use. It’s a great way to make use of the extra plateware at home. More importantly, our office doesn’t keep singles anymore. Using real plates makes meals feel more real and our clients like having real mugs too. Making sure everyone washes their dishes when they place them in the sink is extra work, but people do change and for the most part, it’s just one or two… Read more »


I’ve been obsessed with going to yard sales and grabbing up used glass jars and glass storage dishes with lids. I use them to store everything if I can, but they get pretty heavy to carry to work sometimes. My husband doesn’t even have a lunch box, he just carries his lunch in his laptop bag and hopes that nothing spills. so far, in the last two years, i think he’s only had one minor accident.

surviving and thriving on pennies

I will have 4 kids in school this year so I need this badly. My problem is that all the green options are a bit expensive. Buying green for 4 kids can get super expensive. I have fabric lunch bags, fabric sandwich bags, and small Tupperware type containers which I do not put in hot water. I know they are not the best but until I can afford metal ones, these will have to do. One good thing about Lunch-bots, you can find them in many stores now. Saves you money on shipping I guess. Still a bit expensive. I… Read more »


My daughter and I are knee deep in the middle of a kitchen remodel, and we’ve been very plastic-conscious during the process. Most of our plastic ware has been re-routed to store non-food items (mostly nails, screws, and drill bits!). We hit our first snag in the process this past week. Several days a week, she goes directly to work from class, and because of the time crunch, preparing lunch in advance is a necessity. Since most of our food storage is now glass, finding something to pack a lunch in can be difficult. (Glass isn’t an option for her,… Read more »


It’s a symptom of the state of consciousness out there, where people are not aware of most of their actions. So they unthinkingly use and then throw stuff away, without thinking of just where it could end up. I live in a small village in rural England. Most days when out walking, I asm picking up discarded little that has been thrown out of car windows. To those who litter and use single use products, it is someone else’s problem to deal with.


My daughter goes to a school with no cafeteria–which I love! But I am appalled at the number of kids that bring microwave lunches to school. More than once, a fire alarm has been tripped by an over zapped lunch. I understand wanting to give your kids a hot lunch–even jealous of the parents that have kids that prefer that–but left-overs or planned-overs as I like to call them are a much better option. My husband & I take a variety of planned-overs and cold food for lunch in reusables. I struggle daily with creating variety for my overly picky… Read more »


we use a lot of random glass jars and two steel boxes. i am looking for more as our daughter likes her one one for preschool.
mason jars are my passion as well


It’s been awhile since I’ve been in high school…and it’ll be another while until I have kids to send to school! But at my college we do have ‘Trayless Tuesdays’ as well. Our trays are already reusable and are washed, but we’re encouraged on those days to just carry a plate and cup instead of getting our plates, cups, silverware, etc and piling everything on a tray, which will have a larger environmental cost to wash. All except one of our dining halls don’t even use trays anymore, I don’t think. Pretty neato!

Condo Blues

My husband started packing his lunch again. Most of it is in a reusable container but the man likes his zippered plastic bags for bread. I can’t break him entirely of his habit but I have cut down on his use significantly. He always brings the zippered bags back to wash and reuse. He’s not a fan of the reusable sandwich bags – I’ve tried. I use those for treats at the dog park and the dog doesn’t mind one bit!

Katy Ann

I work from home, so I get to use a real plate everyday, but hubby has to commute everyday. His coworkers go out to eat every day, but hubby takes his lunch. His lunch box is falling apart after years of use, and he is using the last of our plastic containers. But he does take leftovers and fresh fruit instead of individually wrapped foods. He also takes a thermos to fill up at the water fountain instead of using bottled water. And I didn’t even have to tell him to! I’m so proud!


I think styrofoam should be banned. It’s prevalence has diminished a lot in the last 10-15 years but it is still around. Although I’ve only ever seen it once used as trays in a cafeteria. It was on a high school trip to NYC (I’m from Ontario) about 10 years ago. My classmates and I were shocked. I have only ever seen hard plastic reusable treys in cafeteria’s and food courts up til then and after. I now use the Glass lock reusable lunch kits. It’s great. It can securely hold soup without leaking and then can be put straight… Read more »

tammy b

sigh. this is a topic that pushes my buttons. we – at home – use laptop lunch, citizen pip, and other re-usable containers for our lunches. my husband uses glass and my children use pvc, bpa & lead free plastic. our school is trying to be somewhat eco conscious, we DO recycle bottles, cans, and juice pouches, but sadly this school year we will be changing from the hard plastic reusable trays to the dreaded styrofoam. they will be offering plastic ‘sporks’ wrapped individually in, yes, plastic. apparently, it is cheaper to do this than use the dishwasher already in… Read more »

Lisa Anderson

I send my daughter to school with reusable containers…my son well that is another story! I send them and they do not retrurn! We are working on this and making progress. I would love to send the little man with a shiny LunchBots!

Lori @ Groovy Green Livin

I love the pic of you……and your thermos and lunch box. Brings back such fond memories of the 70’s!! I always look on Etsy for great reusable sandwich bags, snack bags, napkins and lunch bags. When you purchase through Etsy you are supporting small business owners….

I send my three young boys to school with reusable everything……I am planning to work with our schools to reevaluate the cafeteria utensils.


Omigosh, I had a flashback when you wrote that your mom wouldn’t let you wear pants to school until 5th grade. I was midway through 7th grade and had to lobby my parents *hard* to wear pants to school. It was easier to get my ears pierced in 6th grade. Isn’t that just…quaint? I had almost completely blocked that out! Thanks for the reminder of how far we’ve come (on some things!). Just for giggles and perspective, my own daughter wears whatever she wants (sometimes dresses, sometimes pants) and got her ears pierced for her 7th birthday. Too funny.

Tina M

For work I no longer use the free disposable stuff in the kitchens. I have my own washable drinking cup, knife, fork and soup bowl. If I have an banana or orange peels, I bring them home to compost. I try to be environmentally conscientious wherever I go. Gradually I’m replacing our plastic food containers with glass containers. My husband has lost most our our plastic sandwich containers and I’m looking for alternative containers for sandwiches. Winning this set would be a nice start. I’m learning stainless steel is the way to go. I wish I could take all the… Read more »


Please don’t enter me- I already have a set of lunchbots and I love them. For me, lunch at work is a two edged sword. We have all the appliances to make our own lunch- reefer, toaster oven, toaster, microwave, george foreman grill- But on the nights I don’t want to cook my own lunch (or supper as I call it) I have three choices- Fast Food, which I really don’t choose much, the wheel of death (the vending machine in the building that spins around its wonderful choices like ork sandwiches and hot dogs all wrapped in plastic) rare… Read more »


I’m reading a book with my three-year old called “Back to School in India”. She loved the picture of the tiffin, and she decided when she goes to school she wants one. I hope she retains the interest. We talk a lot about the damage disposable items do the the environment, how Daddy packs his lunch in a reusable (but plastic lined) lunch box. We’d love to add a lunch bot and use less durable plastics. Last week we picked up some silverware to use for my husband’s lunch box, and for family picnics. The school I used to work… Read more »


I pack containers if I’ll be eating out, just in case I have leftovers. I pack other people’s leftovers too…for the chickens. :) (In fact, several other families we know now save their leftover food/frig cleanings for our chickens, in exchange for free eggs when we have extra). While I am still using plastic containers, they are reused containers. I am hoping to get some of the stainless steel to replace them, but until then my daughter was long ago trained to bring home all her containers from school for me to wash and reuse to pack her lunch. This… Read more »


Hi Beth- I’m using my new Lunchbots for the first time today and couldn’t be happier! I purchased an Uno and a Duo from Whole Foods in NYC this weekend. Prior to now I’ve packed lunches using glass jars, pre-existing plastic containers, with bamboo cultery and a cloth napkin…when I bothered to pack. Lunch is my weak spot. I am hoping that the Lunchbot purchase will inspire me to pack my own more often. That, and I’ve joined a CSA, with my first pick-up this week! Lots more veggies at my house = strong motivation to cook more so I… Read more »


The company I work at uses hard, plastic trays if you need one to carry your food, which they wash. They offer compostable plates, cups, bowl, and utensils & I am not sure if we have a industrial compost thing here or if they send all that stuff off, but they also have compost bins in all of the break rooms so that people can put left over food, paper, etc. in there to be composted. It’s really nice. The only thing they could do better is to stop using so much platic wrap in the cafeteria, I think.


I bring my lunch every day, and, although I sometimes carry it in tupperware (because it’s not heavy and I have a shoulder injury) I transfer it to a glass bowl I keep in my office — especially if I’m heating it up or storing it.

Lunchbots look light; good news!


When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, they had hard plastic reusable trays for your meal, plastic cups and plates for desserts, and metal silverware. They also had plastic cups for fountain drinks such as tea, lemonade, water, or soda. The only thing thrown away would be other drink containers such as milk or juice, and paper napkins. After eating, we returned our trays and utensils to be washed and reused. This was the case all the way up to 1999 when I last dined in a school cafeteria (college). I don’t understand when or why all… Read more »


Our school has switched to litterless lunches. No trash at all. Each class has a compost bin and recycling. No trash can! Composting is done at the school by the students who use the dirt for school gardens.

Isle Dance

I love this post. Wonderful topic.

Growing up, my favorite was an old antique 100% metal lunch box (handed down from my parent) with vents. So. Cool.

And my favorite right now is this:

There is something peaceful about simplicity and most simplicity is simply getting back to the old ways. I love the old ways!


I work at NASA (yeah, rocket scientists) where the cafeteria has FINALLY added cardboard food to-go containers to their styrofoam lineup! We can go to the moon, but we can’t…blah blah blah… Anyway – I bring my own lunch (even to the cafeteria) , eat it off a real plate, with real utensils, and a cloth napkin, and nag my lunch buddies about taking every plastic utensil offerred when they only end up using the fork and throwing it all away anyway. And since my office has the closest microwave for about 8 people, I’ve put big warning signs on… Read more »


I love LunchBots! I bought three duos (which are perfect for a kid’s lunch) last year after you reviewed them. After a while the paint started pealing off the lids, and I was kind of annoyed and ready to retire them, when out of the blue the company sent me three replacement lids, because they had had a bad batch. That’s customer service! I had a metal Holly Hobbie lunch box (that smelled like old bananas, not vinyl). I left it on the playground once in 2nd grade and an 8th grader smashed it. I’m still mad about that. I… Read more »

Carol Edman

20 years ago my then 5th grade daughter successfully campaigned for her school to eliminate disposable lunch trays. Now she’s in the Global Health program as Arizona State U., and her school age children are the new generation of crusaders, particularly for animal rights. My son-in-law is close to adopting my daughter’s vegetarian diet. I am so proud of my kids and grandkids. I would love to be able to give them the lunchbots. Thanks for your blog!


I pack my lunch every day, and keep a spare bpa-free tin of chili at my desk in case I forget it or there are no leftovers. I hardly ever go to the cafeteria, but when I do I choose the compostable containers and take them home to compost. The breakfast and grill has paper containers and there are washable plates and utensils in the cafeteria. I try to educate those around me to use the reusable plates and to think about bringing their own mug. I would love to win the set of lunchbots, we have one set and… Read more »

Cynthia le

I use a laptop lunch and cloth re-usable bags for my daughter’s lunch at school. We also use a steel thermos for her drink everyday. We did use some plastic, but is is zero waste.

Sarah S

I bring my lunch most days to work. Thanks to reading this blog I even bought a stainless steel mug and started bringing my own coffee. Although part of the mug is plastic, it saves me from buying and throwing away a cup each day.

I bring my lunch in plastic tupperware we have owned for a while. I don’t reheat anything in it, even eating some things cold that would be better warm. I would love some stainless steel options.