It boggles the mind if you think about it too much: one child, one lunch a day, for 13 years.
A typical kid can produce 67 pounds of lunch trash each year, easily ending their school career with their own personal landfill of trash produced only at lunchtime.
Our school, the Austin Discovery School, has no hot lunch program. So children must bring their own lunches. Faced with the prospect of that much waste—we headed in the opposite direction—a Zero Waste Lunch Initiative.
Our school is a free, public, charter school in Austin, Texas. We have multi-age classrooms and team teachers. On 200 wooded acres, the site of the old state school, children take hikes, garden, compost and learn in outdoor classrooms. A Zero Waste Lunch Program fit right into our mini-ecosystem.
A typical American school kid's lunch is full of Ziploc baggies, juice boxes, paper napkins, and plastic wear. Most of which ends up in the landfill if the school does not have a recycling program. A common lunchbox item, the Ziploc baggie, cannot even be recycled because of their mixtures of plastic textures. So, how to reduce the waste?
At first, after we announced the initiative, parents groused that it could be expensive or more work to make a waste-free lunch everyday. We realized the first thing we needed to do was educate ourselves and other parents at the school about how to make a zero waste lunch.
At our "Back to School" orientation, we set up a display—various types of lunch boxes, including inexpensive canvas bags, to carry the lunch, leftover plastic containers from used grocery store items have a new life when transporting fruit or chips or cheese chunks, thermoses carry hot foods (even dinner leftovers), stainless steel or plastic water bottles, old silverware from thrift stores (so you're not worried if they don't make it home), cloth napkins, wax bags for sandwiches. While a good thermos runs about $10, the rest can be cobbled together and re-used/re-washed/re-filled every day.
Each classroom was given an old City of Austin recycling container, a trash can, and a compost bucket. Teachers agreed to direct students about where to dump what at the end of lunch and to allow students to rinse off cutlery in the bathroom after eating. So with teachers and parents on board with the general principles of the initiative, and the tools/receptacles in the classrooms to get it organized, we were off to a good start!
While adults organized and implemented the initiative, it was the students who realized you can't just start something and not monitor whether or not it's working. The fifth and sixth graders took it upon themselves to follow up on the initiative and check our progress as a school. They wanted to know: what does it mean to actually produce zero waste?
Each week, teams went out to weigh the trash output of each classroom—incorporating science, math, and social studies. Next they inspected the compost and the recycling to make sure there was no cross-contamination with trash. Finally, reported their findings to the school.
How were we doing? Pretty good. Some classes were definitely better than others, for reasons the students pontificated about in their research, such as, older kids eat more so they might make more trash than the kindergartners. They presented original ideas about how to more greatly minimize trash under our current system. They evaluated, analyzed, hypothesized, and above all, educated. Kids thinking into the future for us was inspiring to say the least. Our initiative, although definitely a work in progress, was having an impact.
Our school Zero Waste Lunch Initiative dovetails nicely with our city. By 2020, Austin has just announced that it plans to be a Zero Waste City. We are the first school in the state to make the leap toward this greener version of our current selves.
While our school's philosophy, administration, and community lended itself to something as radical as a lunch system that produces no trash, all types of schools could easily embrace it, whether urban, suburban or rural. It begins with realizing just how easy it can be.
Lizzie Martinez runs an architectural/sculptural metal business and is a second year student of homeopathic medicine. Her articles have appeared in Filmmaker Magazine and Mothering Magazine. She lives in Austin with her family.