Plastic is a big-and-getting-bigger problem all over the world. Single-use plastics—for example, a single-serving cup of yogurt and the disposable spoon you might eat it with—are intended to be used one time and then thrown away. And while it might take you five minutes to eat the yogurt, when you toss the cup and spoon in a garbage can or recycling bin, that's not the end of the story. Wherever they end up, that cup and spoon, or bits of them, will be around for centuries. And if you think about lots of people repeating this same pattern day after day, you can get a sense of the scale of the problem.
While pre-packaged, grab-and-go food items might seem like convenient time-savers, they deserve a closer look.
A Staggering Sum
The history of plastic dates back to the late 1800s. It's an inexpensive, durable material that's commonplace all over the globe. Single-use plastics have very short useful lifespans, often mere minutes, but long-lasting negative effects on ecosystems, wildlife and people.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one school lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. Multiply that per student over the span of their academic career and it adds up to a staggering sum.
According to the EPA, plastic containers and packaging account for a substantial percentage of the waste that enters U.S. landfills each year, and here in Baltimore, a recent report found that two-thirds of the plastic that enters the city's waste stream is not recyclable.
Convenience and Time
Students of all ages can take responsibility for packing their own lunches or pre-portioning their snacks and lunch items each week. In addition to cutting down on packaging, buying food in bulk and packing it yourself in a container you can use again and again saves money in the long run.
One of the National Aquarium's three conservation goals is to stop plastic pollution, which means we protect vital habitats for wildlife and people by advocating for the elimination of single-use plastics and removing plastic pollution from waterways and wetlands, where they often end up. You can get in on this action by packing a plastic-free lunch!
Pack it Up
Plastic is pervasive and it can be overwhelming to try to eliminate it completely all at once. Use what you already have on hand, focus on going plastic-free in small steps and keep these ideas in mind.
Sandwiches, salads, soups, etc.
Avoid if you can: Plastic wrap, plastic bags, disposable plastic containers.
Better bets: Compostable paper bags. Reusable (but still plastic) boxes, bags and pouches.
Best bets: Metal tins, bento boxes and insulated jars. Reusable bags and wraps made of beeswax-coated cloth.
Sides and snacks
Avoid if you can: Single-serving packages of chips, cookies and other snacks wrapped in plastic or bagged in plastic-coated foil. Disposable plastic cups or plastic-coated foil pouches of fruit, applesauce, yogurt, pudding, etc.
Better bets: Buy in bulk and portion out into compostable paper bags or reusable containers.
Best bets: Use metal containers rather than reusable plastic ones. Pack whole fruits without any packaging.
Avoid if you can: Plastic spoons, forks, straws.
Better bets: Plastic utensils can be washed and reused rather than tossed, or there are compostable options.
Best bets: Pack metal or bamboo utensils that can be brought home, washed and used again the next day.
Avoid if you can: Water, juice and soda in plastic bottles; juice and milk in plastic-coated cardboard boxes with disposable plastic straws wrapped in plastic.
Better bets: Recyclable aluminum cans, if there's a place at school to recycle them or rinse them out to bring home.
Best bets: A refillable, reusable metal bottle.
Pack it all up in a reusable lunchbox or bag, throw in a cloth napkin and you're good to go!