It's Easy Being Green: Working Toward a Zero-Waste Lunch
By Leslie Jamka
I think I was more excited than my kids for their first day of kindergarten at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School (Roland Park). My son has severe food allergies, so I went for lunch on the first day of school and was surprised by the amount of waste. Roland Park is working hard to follow the guidelines of being a “green school,” so I wondered, where are the recycle bins?
Then, I began volunteering for lunch several days a week and noticed a larger issue. Each day, the sad truth was that incredible quantities of food were being thrown away. Many of the items could have been recycled, composted or simply taken home for later consumption. I cannot even begin to count the number of single serving containers of yogurt, applesauce and milk that ended up in the garbage can opened but barely touched. Sandwiches and whole pieces of fruit with a single bite were thrown away at the end of the lunch period. Baggies, plastic wrap and foil are collected and thrown away as the items are opened, making it even harder for students to take home uneaten food.
When I really began to think about the problem, I realized cafeteria waste in general was a much larger issue than the lack of recycling. In an effort to address cafeteria waste, I began working with Ms. Mozoki’s kindergarteners on a zero-waste lunch pilot program. As a “green school” certified by the Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE), Roland Park has a school-wide goal to increase its greening, and a zero-waste lunch program could help. Carolyn Cole, the principal of Roland Park, gave the green light to move forward on the program. “I like that it involves kids as young as kindergarteners not just in recycling but in learning the purpose of reducing waste,” she says.
Each week, the kindergartners and I discuss different types of waste, learning how to reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in the dumpster and landfill on a daily basis and creating materials to educate parents, teachers and other members of the Roland Park community. A special thanks to Simon and Schuster for supporting this effort by donating a set of Little Green Books to the Roland Park library!
There are so many options for packing a zero-waste lunch, ranging from the all-inclusive laptop lunchboxes to mix-and-match lunch-bags and plastic, stainless steel and cloth containers in just about any shape and size. We are focusing on the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Here are some ideas generated by kindergarteners for reducing cafeteria waste:
“I will bring containers.”
On average, we measured that the class generates three pounds of waste a day. Multiply that number by 24, the number of elementary classes, and you get a conservative 75 pounds of waste per day—and that is just from the elementary school! The class goal is to reduce waste by two-thirds—to approximately one pound per day. If every class did that, there would be 50 pounds less waste every day.
There are many advantages of a zero-waste lunch. Buying in bulk reduces excess packaging and saves money, and reusable containers return home each day, so you know exactly how much and what your child eats. Zero-waste lunches also decrease waste in the landfill, reduce our environmental footprint—and help make Roland Park a real “green school.” And it can be fun!
The children teach me amazing things each day, including:
For all of the parents, grandparents and other lunch-packing childcare providers, I offer the following challenges:
In addition to the educational component of reducing waste, we started recycling in the cafeteria. By the end of lunch, I am covered in yogurt, milk and all kinds of other foods—but it’s totally worth it! Our initial plan was to focus on the four kindergarten classes. But by the second day, the 1st and 2nd graders were bringing their items to the portable sink for cleaning and disposal.
I’ve received overwhelming support from the school, its PTA and from Whole Foods for this project. And I’m hoping to attract as much parent and teacher support to continue a parent-run recycling program during all of the lunch periods. If you are interested in more information or would like to help out, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I sign off, I want to leave you with some useful tips to use as you pack lunch each day.
Did you know these items can be recycled?
Did you know these items cannot be recycled?
How to pack a zero-waste lunch
A big thanks to the donations of sustainable lunch bags from Whole Foods and water bottles from Roland Park’s PTA, displayed in the picture above.