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Green Ham and Cheese Featured on Sep 26, 2010
Do you pack your lunch? We challenge you to make every day a waste-free lunch day. We'll show you how.
By packing waste-free lunches for one month, you will reduce your CO2 emissions by 44.6 lbs and can save $20.
6023 people have reduced CO2 emissions by 126.72 tons by completing this challenge so far. That's equal to turning off the electricity of 169 homes for about 1 month!
- The average brown-bag lunch from home generates 65 pounds of garbage per child per school year.
- Lunch waste is 1/3 plastic, 1/3 paper, and 1/3 food.
- Waste-free lunches cost almost 40% less to make than lunches filled with pre-packaged foods.
Think about the typical bag lunch. In your mind, reach into the brown paper bag and start pulling out the contents. There’s a sandwich, most likely in some sort of plastic sandwich bag. Maybe there’s a snack bag of chips or a snack bag of cookies. There might be a single-serving container of yogurt or an individually wrapped granola bar. Hopefully there’s a piece of fruit… perhaps a banana or apple. And maybe there’s a paper napkin and a plastic spoon, fork, or even — for advanced brown-baggers — a spork.
Now, think about time passing. Yak yak, chew chew. Before you know it, lunch is over. It’s time to throw away your lunch garbage. What from that typical bag lunch gets thrown into the garbage? A lot, it turns out: containers, wrappers, napkins, etc. For kids in school, the average brown-bag lunch from home generates 65 pounds of garbage per child per school year. And that’s heavier than most average children.
This Featured Challenge is based on suggestions made by Sandra Dee and canyongreengal. Together, these two suggestions have received 33 positive votes in our Challenge Workshop. We would also like to thank vancouver.girl05 and Carbonara for their environmentally-tasty suggestions.
The Carbon Connection
Much of the disposable garbage in a lunch bag (including the bag itself) is paper and plastic. Like all manufactured products, the manufacturing of paper and plastic wrappers and containers used in the typical bag lunch is a source of greenhouse emissions. Most often, fossil fuels are burned to create the energy needed to initially manufacture the paper and plastic, to create packaging from the paper and plastic, and then to actually package food in the paper and plastic. There’s also the fossil fuel needed to transport the raw materials or manufactured from one place to another. And burning fossil fuels leads to the release of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere. If we can reduce the amount of paper and plastic we use by reducing the disposable garbage in our lunches, we can reduce the carbon dioxide emissions.
Getting It Done
This Challenge is for all of you who pack a lunch for work or school each day, either for yourself or for someone in your family. It’s time to cut the carbon waste out of your midday meal. If you haven’t given much thought to making waste-free lunches for yourself or with your family, here are a few suggestions about where to start:
- The first thing you need is a good, reusable lunch bag. You’re looking for a bag that is large enough to hold your typical daily lunch, plus it needs to be durable enough to last at least a couple of years. Your new bag doesn’t need to be hard-sided; you’ll be packing the squishable food in sturdy containers that go inside the bag.
- Next you need sturdy, washable containers to replace the plastic bags or aluminum foil you’ve been using for sandwiches and other foods. These containers will also be useful for when you buy foods in bulk and dish out single-servings instead of taking pre-packaged snacks. Remember that it’s better to reuse containers you already have than to buy new ones; that way you aren’t responsible for the energy and carbon dioxide associated with the manufacture of the new container. So, before you buy any new containers, look around your kitchen to see if you already have any containers you can use. You may already have traditional containers. You might also start saving other containers, such as ones used for baby food or deli meats or margarine or cream cheese tubs.
- If you find that you do need to buy new containers, you have choices. If you don’t want to buy traditional Rubbermaid or Tupperware containers, you can always opt for simpler, cheaper alternatives like GladWare containers or Rubbermaid TakeAlongs. When buying plastic containers, look for products that say on the label that they are BPA-free. (Bisphenol A or BPA is a plastics additive that has been in use since the 1930s. Recently, BPAs have been in the news as a possible serious health risk. If the scientists and government safety organizations can’t agree on it, it seems smart to just avoid it.)
- Once you have the washable containers, you need to get the food to put in them. Buy large bags of chips and then pack smaller portions in your washable containers. Buy large tubs of yogurt and spoon a single serving into one of your washable containers instead of taking individual, pre-packed yogurts. Loose granola in a container replaces a pre-packaged granola bar.
- After the food comes the drink. Don’t pack juice boxes. Those antiseptic drink box containers (containing either juice or milk) are almost impossible to recycle. Many communities don’t even try. And as a Rallyer, you already know that the single-use plastic bottles of water are a bad idea. So it’s time to find a refillable drink bottle that will fit in your lunch bag. Check your cupboards. Again, it’s always better to use something you already own rather than buy something new. If you do need to buy a new refillable drink bottle, either look for refillable plastic bottles certified to be BPA-free (the CamelBak Better Bottle or newer products from Nalgene) or look for a stainless steel or aluminum bottle. Rinse it with water each night and then wash it on the weekend.
- Don’t forget utensils! You want to replace the disposable plastic forks and spoons with reusable, washable utensils like the ones you use at home. Take ones from home if you can spare them. If not, buy enough cheap stainless steel utensils (yard sale!) to get you and your family through a few days worth of lunches.
- Finally, pack a cloth napkin with your lunch instead of a paper napkin. Bring it home and wash it with your laundry. Not only will you cut down on your lunch waste, but think of the festive elegance you’ll be adding to your lunch table.
- Small businesses often have kitchens with dish washers. If you and your colleagues all bring in extra mugs, plates, and metal utensils from home for the office lunchroom, none of you will have to bring any from home each day! And remember, if you have plates at the office, you don’t have to take paper plates and plastic utensils from the restaurant when you bring in that pizza and salad for lunch.
- Many colleges, school systems, and individual schools are having success with waste-free lunch programs. Visit Waste Free Lunches to get ideas about how you can launch a program in your school or community.
What are you doing with your child’s lunch this year? How have you managed to tackle the scourge of wasteful packaging in your own lunch? Share your stories and suggestions with your fellow Rallyers in the Challenge forum section below.
Rules of the Challenge
This Challenge asks you to make yourself or your kids waste-free lunches for the next month. (If you normally pack your lunch a few days a week and then eat fast food the other days, then you need to make waste-free lunches a daily habit for the duration of the Challenge.) By eliminating an average of 6 ounces of packaging garbage from each lunch for 20 school days or work days, you will reduce your CO2 emissions by 44.6 lbs for the month. This Challenge is repeatable after 30 days.
See the Math
Now it’s time to see just how much carbon dioxide you can save by switching to waste-free lunches. Here are the known or estimated numbers being used for this Challenge:
- According to a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation publication, a typical, disposable lunch creates between 4 and 8 ounces of garbage each day. We are going to split the difference and call it 6 ounces of garbage per lunch per day. source
- Let’s look at that 6 ounces of garbage. It includes plastic in the form of bags and wrappers, trays, yogurt containers, utensils, and straws. It also includes paper products such as the paper bag the lunch was packed in, napkins, other bags, straw wrappers, and so on. Of course, let’s hope that part of that garbage might be more natural, such as a banana or orange peel or an apple core. (Juice boxes are made out of plastic, paper, and aluminum foil. We are ignoring foil.) For the purposes of our calculations, we are going to split that 6 ounces equally between these 3 categories. This gives us 2 ounces of plastic, 2 ounces of paper, and 2 ounces of organic waste.
- There are around 20 work days or school days in 1 month. At one lunch per day, that gives us 20 lunches per month.
- First, let’s look at CO2 emissions associated with the paper garbage. We are going to use a conversion factor of 6.1 lbs CO2 released per 1 lb (16 oz) of paper. This is based on a 33% post-consumer fiber paper, so it should be a reasonable number to use for the different paper products in our 2 ounces of paper garbage. source
- Next, let’s look at CO2 emissions associated with the plastic garbage. We don’t have a generic conversion for plastic, so we are basing this number on an estimated 0.11 lbs CO2 released per medium-sized plastic grocery bag. A plastic grocery bag weighs about 0.15 ounces. source
- Adding the numbers for the paper and the plastic gives us 44.6 lbs of CO2 saved per month by packing waste-free lunches. We are not including energy used or CO2 created as the result of washing reusable containers. We are assuming that these will simply become part of your normal dish and laundry washing.
Not that you need more incentive, but waste-free lunches can also save you money. A popular chocolate sandwich cookie costs twice as much per ounce when bought in snack packs as opposed to larger bags. All of that over-packaging adds to the cost. According to the folks at Waste-Free Lunches, a waste-free lunch costs almost 40% less to make than a lunch filled with pre-packaged foods. Over the course of a typical 180-day school year or 240-day work year, that’s a potential savings of about $250 per child or $330 per working adult!
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