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Schools Strive for
Waste-Free Lunches


More and more schools are discovering the benefits of cutting down on the waste they produce, particularly in the lunchroom. Reduced amounts of trash also reduce the costs of disposal, and composting recycles much of the waste created by student lunches. However, for these schools the greatest benefit is not monetary -- they're producing the next stewards of the Earth. Included: Simple ways to reduce the waste produced by your school.

"If we hope that the next generation will help us change our consumption patterns, we must help our students learn about the connections between their consumer choices and the associated resource use," Jeanne Casella told Education World. 

A traditional packed lunch (left) is compared with a waste-free lunch.

As principal of Mary Silveira Elementary School in San Rafael, California, Casella has tried many different approaches to reduce waste produced in the school. She began with a "waste audit" that was facilitated by the Marin Conservation Corps, which provided containers, tarps, and staff to help sort the trash. The organization also helped the school process the results with software that generated graphs and pie charts.

"We then analyzed the data and made a goal to recycle more of our waste," recalled Casella. "Corps members met with the kids so that we could come up with the goals. We went from a diversion rate [material diverted from the waste stream] of 64% to 80%. We also started with small worm bins and then consolidated them into a large one. We collected the fruits and veggies for the worms."


Reduce Trash Today

"A key to the successful reduction of lunch waste is simply making parents aware of the waste that is created by packaged lunches," explained Amy Hemmert of "Although they are known for their convenience, these lunches are typically not as healthy as waste-free lunches, and students who eat healthier lunches are more likely to perform better in their classes." To cut down on school garbage simply and quickly

Write a letter to families and explain that the school has made a decision to cut down on the waste it produces, especially with student lunches. Request that parents support the school's effort by reducing the waste from their children's lunches with reusable containers and cloth napkins that can be cleaned at home and used another day.

Spread the message that waste-free is healthier for the environment and the child with materials like the pamphlet The Waste-Free Lunchbox from

See more tips in the sidebar below.

Casella believes it is important to keep the waste reduction program at the school interesting, and she explores new methods each year. The school offers waste-free lunch containers at cost, and students who bring waste-free lunches sometimes receive coupons that they may use to enter a weekly drawing for a special prize.

"Every once in a while I have rewarded students who bring waste-free lunches with a pencil made out of recycled blue jeans or shoe laces made out of plastic bottles," said Casella, who received these items for free from the Department of Conservation. "One year we did a Pack It In, Pack It Out Day once a month. We actually took all of the garbage cans away on the yard and in the lunchroom. Another year, we counted the waste-free lunches every Tuesday and then the kids graphed [the data]. We gave a trophy to the class that had the most waste-free lunches, and it moved around each week."

One of the most challenging aspects of the school's move to reduce waste has been working with its trash collection/recycling service. Not all items that can be recycled by private residences can be recycled by schools. The service is particular about containers that the school wants to recycle. The school's trash audit revealed that more could be done to recycle and reuse lunchroom refuse.

"We were surprised by the amount of food that the children were throwing away, some of it totally uneaten," remarked Casella. "We talked to parents about having a conversation with their children so that they were packing things that the kids would eat, and we encouraged the kids to bring home their uneaten food."

In fact, Casella has found that waste reduction is something that she must talk about every year and keep talking about. She asks parents to pack waste-free lunches in her very first letter of the school year. She also brings up the topic in her weekly newsletter, and students who are "waste managers" and "composters" at the school write articles for the monthly parent newsletter. As a beginning, students are asked to draw pictures of their lunches, and they then analyze the pictures to see how much garbage these lunches generate.

"We ask the kids to start by making small changes, like keeping snacks in plastic containers," Casella explained. "We ask parents, staff, and students to explore some basic questions: What resources do I consume? Where do these resources come from? What waste do I generate? and Where does the waste go? We have to think about where it all comes from or where it goes."


At Casella's school, she has found that students want to work together to reduce waste and often put pressure on their parents to purchase waste-free lunch containers and use them. According to Amy Hemmert of, establishing this type of "buy-in" -- in which students, parents, and staff recognize the importance of reducing school waste and are active in the cause -- is the critical first step in creating a waste-free lunch program.

More Tips

Share reminders through posters in the lunchroom and announcements or newsletters.

Make recycling clear and convenient. Put containers where the students will see and use them.

Reward classes that put forth their best effort to be waste-free.

Lead by example. Model the waste-free lunch and waste-reduction practices.

Find a "cheerleader" -- a parent or staff member -- who will organize your waste reduction program and maintain interest in it.

Set an attainable goal, and track your progress.

Consider compostable disposable utensils and dishes for lunchroom use. A list of companies that offer such products can be found at Directory of Certified Compostable Products.

"It is important to establish a sense of need, to show that the task of waste reduction is doable and worthwhile," said Hemmert. "In our community, we have been advised that if we continue to dispose of refuse at current levels, our landfill will close in 15 years. This in itself has fostered a sense of urgency."

Trash audits often get people on board because they illustrate the amount of trash that is produced by the school lunchroom and what that trash is, Hemmert says. Schools are often surprised by the portion of lunch trash that is comprised of compostable food -- sometimes as much as half.

"It is important to find an individual -- a parent, teacher, or other volunteer -- who will keep interest high over the course of the endeavor," Hemmert advised. "The only trend we have seen is that more and more and more waste is being generated by school lunches. This is occurring in part because schools increasingly provide catered lunches from take-out restaurants and pre-packaged lunches made by services."

A simple fact that draws administrators to waste-free programs is that reducing dumpster size saves schools money. Hemmert's organization offers information for parents and schools as well as reasonably priced waste-free lunch kits that help kids pack and eat healthful meals that leave no unseemly garbage behind. She believes that teaching responsibility and caring for the environment should start in preschool. Even in some early childhood classes, activities like a "party bin" -- party dishes that are used for class events and taken home by a parent, washed, and returned -- reinforce an Earth-friendly mindset.

"We're just on the crest of the mainstream adopting the waste-free lunch," Hemmert observed. "Parents and schools are becoming more aware of the concept, and it is becoming more prevalent in K-12 schools everyday."


A boy tends Gateway's compost pile.

"Our school has had a long-time commitment to environmental issues and the faculty is sensitive to related concerns," David J. Peerless said of Gateway School. "We had several teachers who really wanted to work on a waste-free lunch program, and we had some parents who shared the concern."

The school in Santa Cruz, California, began a school-wide recycling program when it moved to its current campus about 15 years ago. Peerless, who is the head of the school, has encouraged faculty members and parents to work with the children to promote the program and find new outlets for conservation.

"More and more is becoming Web-based," he stated. "The challenge now is to stop people from printing hard copies for their files. I feel that waste reduction works if it is a long-term educational process by all members of the school community. Otherwise it becomes a policing effort by administrators or a few believers."

If there is a "cheerleader" in the waste-free effort at Gateway, it is Caprice Potter, who teaches an outdoor environmental science program called "Life Lab" to its K-8 students. The program has evolved from a few garbage cans for recyclables placed near lunch tables to an organized activity in which students themselves collect and process food waste, paper, cardboard, yard waste, and plastic, metal, and glass containers. Potter personally teaches lessons about composting, the nutrient cycle, vermiculture, and waste-reduction landfill issues.

"We don't have a lunchroom," Potter explained. "Children bring their own lunches, and we have two days of hot lunches. Children sort their trash into the various containers on the playground, lunch scraps or compost, and container recycling. Paper is collected by the fourth graders in every room. We have primarily focused on school-wide recycling; however, there is a huge need to implement more of the 'reduce consumption' aspect."

The reduction of consumption and reusing of resources before materials are recycled are tougher concepts to teach with activities, but teachers at Gateway model them in their classrooms. They often have their students use both sides of papers before they are recycled and print on both sides of notes and homework pages.

"The children are quite responsible, concerned, and devoted to the process when they understand there is no such thing as away as in thrown away," added Potter. "They do, however, need consistency within the general school community, reminders, and support. We all do, for that matter!"


Ecology Action
This nonprofit environmental consultancy works with schools and others to establish cutting-edge conservation programs.
"Worm Woman" Mary Appelhof shares the ins and outs of worm composting so that you too can say, "Worms eat my garbage!"

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 04/20/2005
Last updated 06/01/2010