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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


A Daily Gazette community blog
Ideas on greener living

Striving for waste-free lunches

Much as my son hates to admit it, it’s almost time for school to start.

That means new sneakers and a check through the Mom Box of school supplies to see what we have hoarded and what we still need. And it’s time to start thinking about the lunch box again.

I try to deal with school supplies and lunch box issues in as sustainable manner as possible, without causing total middle school mortification. So yes, I understand the boy cannot use the Tinkerbell sandwich box, no matter how cute his sister thought it was. But he can use the plain red one.

Those sandwich boxes are plastic, and I would prefer to find reusable, lunch-sized containers made out of other materials. I use glass jars and containers in my own lunch box a lot of the time, but they are too heavy and too breakable to send on the bus in a backpack.

You can buy metal lunch containers online or in specialty stores, but I don’t because they are far too expensive. And I know my kid well enough to know that within a month a metal container will be dinged up enough that the lid will never fit again. My friend’s tidier children use them, but they can’t put in any thing liquidy — like yogurt or juicy fruits — because the lids leak a little.

So I’ve bought a few tightly lidded plastic containers over the years, and we tend to reuse whatever other plastic containers come into the house for as long as we can.

I know it might not be the best solution, that much plastic contains BPAs and other harmful chemicals and that it’s important not to heat them or use them to the point that they are wearing out. Sometimes it’s a matter of striking a balance between logic and best practices. Anyway, I think it’s better to limit the number of little plastic lunch bags you use once or twice and then throw away. If the boy is getting carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes in his lunch, it makes sense to pack them in something that can be easily reused the next day for his pretzels or cookies.

I reuse small bottles for drinks, but I have to be careful about the mortification factor here too. When my daughter was still in school she would allow that reusing a single-serve juice bottle for a few weeks was fine, but putting juice in a little honey jar was beyond the pale.

“Mom,” she said in her most serious seventh-grade voice. “You’ve gone too far this time.”

Fortunately, it is not mortifying to get a cloth napkin or a metal fork in your lunch box, in case you were wondering.

Truly achieving a litter-free lunch is beyond me, although I’ve been trying for years. Ultimately the containers will wear out or crack. An insulated lunch bag will eventually get ripped and have to be thrown out — we find they don’t quite make it through two school years.

I can buy snacks and juice in bulk to limit packaging, but that just means less litter, not no litter.

I find I can cut my waste footprint further by looking in thrift stores for some school supplies. Often I find perfectly good binders, plastic folders and even practically new lunch bags or boxes in thrift stores. And since a new binder tends to be destroyed by April, I’ve never found that a second-hand one lasts any less time. The best “Trapper Keeper” style binder we ever got — the only one that ever lasted an entire school year without losing a zipper — we found at our church thrift store for 50 cents.

It makes me feel a little better about the fact that ultimately, like everything else, it ended up in the trash.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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