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Reduce

How we made our school lunches plastic free

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We’ve all heard it before. Did you ever stop to think about what the three Rs mean, and why Reduce is the first step in the process? Most of us justify our use of plastics with the fact that we recycle it. So, we’re doing our part for the environment, right? Wrong. Very wrong, actually. #ReduceFirst

I have to admit, even last year, I wasn’t considering how much waste was going into my daughter’s lunches. My primary focus was for everything in her lunch to be healthy. I wouldn’t purchase yogurt with high sugar content and granola bars were only those with clean ingredients; but all these things were individually pack (in plastic) for my convenience. 

When I decided to stop using plastic, I realized how much extra packaging we had been consuming. Each one of my kids would have at least one Ziploc bag with veggies or fruits, a single serving container of yogurt, a granola bar and a cheese string. Four pieces of plastic per lunch, times 3 kids, times 5 days a week = 60 pieces of plastic per week (260 pieces per month, 3120 per year, and so on). 

Now, many of you are probably thinking that this isn’t a big deal because all of these items are recyclable. However, so much of what we think we are recycling actually ends up in the garbage. Surprised? So was I when I started looking into it. Here are important facts about recycling plastic in the U.S. (source: 5 GYRES Science to Solutions; The Truth about Recycling):

  • Much of the plastic dropped in recycling bins isn’t even recycled. Why? Our facilities can’t keep up: Plastic production surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 tons in 2014—an increase of more than 2,000 percent. Currently, more than 300 million tons of new plastic is produced annually and less than 10% is recycled.
  • Without a profitable market in which to sell it, it’s not cost-effective for many recycling companies to process plastic, so many sell it to other countries at a loss. In 2011, plastic trash was America's primary export to China.
  • In countries like India, waste pickers sort through the trash to find the pieces that are most valuable—thicker plastics and metals. The remainder becomes landfilled or incinerated, creating a health crisis for communities. Local waterways act like conveyor belts, sending plastic straight out to sea.

My household was producing 3120 pieces of plastic each year from the kids’ lunches alone. 2,808 pieces were likely ending up in the garbage. I don’t know how much of that ended up in the ocean, but it was definitely too much.  

I knew I wanted to rectify the situation, but I was a little overwhelmed with the idea and worried about how much harder it would be on me. However, when I broke it down into my plastic-free plan, I realized it barely made a difference to me. Now, with the help of my kids, we’ve really found our groove. If you are interested in making the same move away from single-use plastics, here is some helpful advice:

1. Reusable containers for everything.

Make sure you have enough containers in a variety of sizes appropriate for what you will use them for (small containers helped me avoid running the dishwasher every night). I’ve also recently started using beeswax wrap to wrap either a small snack or protect half a fruit instead of using a bulky container. The beeswax wrap is amazing because it’s so easy to clean and acts like the most durable plastic wrap ever.

 2. Chat with the family so everyone is on board. 

The kids were already aware of my determination to reduce our plastic usage even before we started Clear the Ocean, and weren’t surprised when I sat them down to talk about modifying our lifestyle. It’s possible that you may get a little more resistance from your family in the beginning, but trust me when I say they will adapt very quickly. 

3. Buy in bulk, or behind the grocers counter.

Do your best to limit purchasing items in disposable packaging. For example, bring a reusable container to the meat counter rather than buying pre-packaged lunch meats. Purchase blocks of cheese and slice it at home rather than the single serving versions. You can get fresh bread from the bakery in a reusable bread bag, and buy large containers of yogurt that you can split into individual servings. 

What’s been the most fun about this whole process is the kids have become interested in what goes into their lunches. One of the kids favorite snacks are granola bars. I didn’t have a bulk version to replace this item so I started making my own. The kids have started requesting what ingredients go into them and also ask to help make them. #SoFun

The zero waste lifestyle does require some extra work in the beginning. You have to get used to organizing your meals and making sure that you plan ahead. It means spending a little more time in the kitchen and running the dishwasher an extra time or two each week. That being said, it’s worth it. We have reduced our annual plastic consumption by over 3000 pieces just by making some small and simple adjustments at lunch time. Imagine the impact on the world if we all made a single change? 

The next time you reach for an individually-packaged convenience item, just remember, REDUCE FIRST!