The Questioning Environmentalist: Litterless Lunches. NaBloPoMo Day 9

The other day eight-year-old N’s lunch box came home from school and everything inside it was covered in yogurt. No, the yogurt container did not explode; no, she did not deliberately smear yogurt everywhere; no she is not THAT messy of an eater. The yogurt had come from the remains of the yogurt lid and container, and this empty lid and container were in her lunch box because at her school, children are not allowed to put anything from their lunches in the garbage. Hence, all the wrappers and the waste come home for us tired parents to discard, and after that we scrub out the lunch box so that it is ready for the next day’s food and waste.

The idea behind litterless lunches is that children learn to be less wasteful with packaging and garbage; or is it that the school has to pay less for garbage disposal? I’m not really sure.

Now I like the idea of reducing waste. Though we are not perfect, we are not a wasteful family. However, I just cannot get behind the idea that one giant tub of yogurt dispensed into Tupperware containers that later need to be washed in hot soapy water and rinsed, is definitely more environmentally friendly than buying the individually sized tubs. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I suspect there are no real data that prove this.

Relatedly, if we all baked our own granola bars, the amount of energy used by all of our ovens working individually is likely much more wasteful than if we all bought our bars from an efficient factory that pumps them out in a streamlined process. Leaving nutrition aside for the moment, the environmental impact of everyone baking must be much greater than if parents bought items with wrappers around them.

One last impact to bringing home all of this waste is that the lunchboxes become pretty nasty smelling pretty quickly, despite regular washing at home (more soap and water). I discard more lunch boxes than I might need to if they came home nice and clean every day.

I want to be clear that the environment is important to me and that I want to teach my daughters to be good to the earth, but sometimes I think we jump on new policies without thinking them all the way through.

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About Finola

I am an Ottawa area Mom, writer-want-to-be and coffee legend in the making.
This entry was posted in environment, litterless lunches, nablopomo. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Questioning Environmentalist: Litterless Lunches. NaBloPoMo Day 9

  1. Jeff says:

    This way the school board meets thier zero land fill and waste reduction targets by downloading.

    Reduce, refuse, redirect

    It all makes perfect sense to a bureaucracy

  2. John says:

    Good insight.

    As someone who has worked in the environmental field for quite some time, I agree that the zero waste lunch policies likely have little if any impact on the quantity of solid waste disposed. It is simply being thrown out by the residential sector rather than the institutional.

    Furthermore, as you rightfully point out, policies like these do not use a full cost accounting approach when looking at the total environmental impact. Your “hot water and soap” example is apt. Energy was required to heat the water, manufacture the hot water tank, by the water treatment plant to make the water potable, etc. Energy and raw materials were also required to make the soap, transport it to a wholesaler, then a retailer, then for you to buy it and bring it home.

    These are called indirect inputs into the production process. And for every one of these inputs there is a companion coefficient that can be used to calculate the amount of GHGs produced, emissions released, energy used and waste generated.

    In short, if schools are pursuing these policies to show students that wastefulness is undesirable, then OK. But they should come clean and not claim these policies to be somehow “good” for the environment. They are neutral at best.

  3. mustangsabby says:

    I've read so many blogs where parents lament the disgusting lunch boxes they must deal with, after the school has put in place a “no waste” lunch policy. You aren't the only one with yogurt covered bags and squished banana peel yuck that makes a parent see red.

    What is the cost for this extra waste to be funneled through our schools instead of our recycle and waste bins? Are there budget and financials we can see somewhere?

    if the purpose is for education of wastefulness and being environmentally friendly, why not have a compost program in the school to teach kids what compost is used for (and use it on the garden beds around the schools?)? Why not have a recycle program that lets kids understand how to sort their garbage into recyclable and waste, find re-uses for waste, and understand what happens to it after the garbage men pick it up? This would seem much more effective than simply making them take it all home to let mom and dad deal with.

  4. I buy big tubs of yogurt and put it into small containers because I am frugal (read: cheap)and because the little yogurts don't come in personalized flavours: I want 4 vanilla, 4 blueberry, 4 peach. No others. I dislike the sticky lunch boxes but consoled myself that it was better for the environment. Hmm – never thought about the extra washing etc. Excellent point!

  5. Yogurts are the worst for the stink factor! Do what us slacker moms do — don't send yogurt! 😉

  6. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Finola. (I also appreciated John's insights from the professional environmentalist angle.)

    I have been trying for years to make our house and eating habits more environmentally friendly, but it's often so hard to weigh the pros and cons of each decision. Everything has some impact and it's not always to figure out what it is – especially when both money and time are limited!

  7. Capital Mom says:

    I have wondered abotu the litterles lunch thing, but we don't have to deal with lunchs for two more years. yay.

    I hadn't thought about the mess the food will make in the lunch box. I am now going to have to think carefully about which lunch box we buy!

  8. Wow! Great points you make here! I've just posted your article on our FACEBOOK Wall and asked my audience about their experiences with the whole litterless lunch thing. This should get very interesting…

  9. There are some fun lunchboxes that are dishwasher safe, such as metal ECO Lunchboxes, rubber or plastic Goodbyn, Laptop Lunches, and EasyLunch boxes (all available through Amazon or direct from manufacturers.) They won't all fit a yogurt cup, but WOULD fit a GoGurt or other yogurt tube. And you pack the waste back in and seal the lid, so that the cooler bag you send them in doesn't get ooky (although the one available from EasyLunch is machine washable.) Or you could pack a yogurt cup outside the box and they could crush it to fit. Or even rinse them out first! I saved all our YoBaby yogurt cups, washed them out and put some in her play kitchen, and glued tagboard over the openings on the others to make stacking blocks. Others we used as seedling planters. My sister uses them as snack cups in the house. And if they get too gross or crushed, she just recycles or discards them then.

    This doesn't solve the wasted water from washing issue, but it DOES make them more sanitary than handwashing a drugstore lunchbox! Less stinky too! And tossing a lunchbox in with my daily dishwashing doesn't affect the whole thing too much, since I'm running it anyway. It's not like turning on the water special, just for my lunchbox! (EasyLunch boxes come in packs of 4! So I don't even have to wash one every day.)

  10. Finola says:

    Thank you for all of the thoughtful comments here. I need a bit more time to sort through them all and respond properly, but sincerely, THANK YOU!

  11. Urban Girl says:

    I so agree with you F! When you consider the whole life cycle of something such as tupperware vs individual yogurt containers or the impact of 30 families making granola to one company making granola, it makes it so hard to figure out what IS best to do.

    I had no idea that was what a “litterless lunch” was. I truly thought the schools were trying to educate the kids (and families) and help with the cause – rather than just push the litter back at the parents. That's just unbelievable. I LOVE the idea of having composts at schools, etc. That would be a much better way to go!

    (Greenest Stuff blog)

  12. Urban Girl says:

    oh that reminds me – not about litterless lunches but about the tupperware issue – you may find this post interesting:

    http://cleanbinproject.com/2010/04/13/what-about-the-kids/

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