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7 Tasteful Tips For A Waste-Free Lunch: Deskside Edition

First Posted: 05/07/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:10 PM ET

Lunch

Between finishing up that huge presentation, attempting to catch up on last week's email, and trying to sneak out early to make it to an evening affair, the lunch hour often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to planning and preparation. This lack of planning means that landfills fill up with billions of tons of "lunch product" trash each year. Thankfully there are some really simple solutions for creating a waste-free mid-day meal, whether you're dining desk-side or enjoying yourself en plein air.

1. Thinking outside the box (or bag!): Brown bagging it isn't just for kids and cheapskates, though it is healthier and more affordable than the alternative (unless you are just packing generic Oreo's). Yet a wrinkled, folded sack isn't really chic nor is it sustainable. A reusable lunch box or bag will definitely make you a cooler kid, irrespective of your age. I love the Tiffin Box Set from To-Go Ware, it's great for salads (it comes with a small container for dressing) - and it's ingenious in the way that it does double duty as both your lunchbox and individual storage containers.

2. Ditching the "one-time use" items: Almost 1/3 of the waste generated in the U.S. is from packaging - if you take a look at your lunch, or your child's, it's pretty clear why. From the plastic wrapped sandwich and the Ziplock baggies, to the juice boxes or soda cans, and the additional packaging of single-serving foods, home-packed lunches are often filled with one-time use plastics that are not even recyclable. It's no surprise then that the U.S.
consumes over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps each year (EPA). It's important to note that plastic bags don't biodegrade, rather they "photodegrade." This means that they break down into smaller and smaller toxic pieces that animals end up ingesting via contaminated waterways and soil - keep in mind that some of those animals will end up in our next lunch, and so the cycle continues. The solution? Reusable storage containers.

3. Plastic-free is the choice for me!: All that plastic that we use (and rarely reuse) takes a tremendous amount of energy and water to produce and isn't recyclable in much of America (only water bottles are recyclable in Marin county!). Additionally, beware of using plastic containers for heating or freezing food. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has stated that it's possible for chemicals from these plastics to "migrate" into food. You can control "undesirable flavors" by using glass or ceramic storage containers when bringing food that requires re-heating or is high in fat (fat attracts toxins). Continue to use your plastic storage containers for sandwiches, fruits and anything else that won't require a microwave but don't buy new plastic containers! When you need new containers, move to glass or long-lasting stainless steel. As for the baggie issue, when packing my lunch, I prefer to stick with organic cotton snack bags, but for leak-resistance you can try fresh snack packs, which are food safe and made with phthalate-free plastic.

4. Drink to the many options for reusable mugs and water bottles: Other than the reusable box or bag and storage containers (and sometimes they are one and the same) make sure you've got a reusable water bottle and coffee/tea mug. Since close to 2.7 billion juice boxes end up in the landfills every year, it's best to squeeze your own (though not always realistic) or buy in bulk and then take your drinks in a reusable container (Container
Recycling Institute). I just got the "I'm Not A Paper Cup" reusable mug and I love it because it is porcelain and plastic-free, but there are plenty of options for insulated mugs. As for water bottles I like Sigg, or Kleen Kanteen, and lately I am lusting after Earthlust's custom designed stainless steel bottles.

5. Put a fork in it! Using renewably sourced utensils: Of course in our culture it is impolite to eat salads and pastas without utensils. But I think it is pretty impolite that in the U.S. we throw away enough paper & plastic cups, forks and spoons to circle the earth 300 times (ecoagents.org)! Plan ahead and have a reusable set with you. Bring cutlery of your own from home and keep them in your desk or join the To-Go Ware warriors and sport a
Bamboo Flatware Utensil Set. Made of rapidly renewable bamboo and packaged in a durable and handy recycled poly sack, the set even includes chopsticks for bento box days.

6. Mother Earth suggests wiping your face and minding your manners: Last but not least, invest in a cloth napkin. Bring one from home or purchase one that's designated for your lunch kit - you can even cut a square out of a stained t-shirt, if you want to be frugal. If you're purchasing new, make sure it's either organic cotton or another eco-friendly fiber like hemp.

7. Kids can conserve too: If you're packing for children, don't think that their smaller size means their waste trail doesn't mount up - the average child generates 67 pounds of lunch-related school waste each year (EPA)! The waste-free lunch kit from Kids Konserve makes rerouting your routine simple. And since lunchtime trash is second only to office paper as the leading source of school waste, it's important to start the eco-lunch lesson early (Green Teacher Magazine, Fall 2004).

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the "Tasteful Tips for a Waste-Free Lunch" series: The Take-Out Route.

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Filed by Dave Burdick  |