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Kindergartner Takes Down Trash

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The average person generates about 7 pounds of trash every day, according to a Columbia University study--nearly 50 pounds per person per week. That's roughly the weight of my kindergartner. Figuring out how to put a dent in that pile of trash can feel overwhelming, unless you think about it like a kindergartner.

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"Mommy, I have a way that we can help the animals in the ocean." My 6-year-old son tugged at my shirt, but it was what he said that had me captivated.

I crouched down to meet him eye to eye. "What's your idea?" I asked.

My son had a simple but powerful plan. The inspiration came from a study of the ocean in his kindergarten class. He started with what he could control--no plastic baggies in his lunch. It was his way of reducing the amount of waste he was contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch forming in the middle of our ocean. He decided to start small.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Those insidious plastic pockets seemed small and harmless, but as my awareness came into focus, I realized that I had been using them far too often. My pantry was stocked with a variety of reusable containers--stainless steel bentos, BPA-free bottles, and reusable bags--but somehow those plastic bags kept creeping in. Though they were helpful to us, they weren't helpful to the sea turtles that often mistook them for jellyfish.

The power in this solution was starting small and letting my child lead the way. After bidding adieu to the baggies, we started to send our packaged products packing. We learned to make a few of our lunchbox favorites, like homemade granola bars. When we shopped, we tried to choose snacks that didn't come in individually-wrapped packages. Slowly, we whittled down the trash in our lunchboxes until there was zero waste.

My son was elated--he made a difference, his way.

This passion for reducing trash has started to spread beyond our boxes, too. At school, my son and his class labeled the trashcans on campus to make it easier for people to know where their waste was going--compost, recycle, landfill. At our local grocery store, he approached the manager to share that many of the things going into the trash at his store could be terracycled instead. You can imagine the surprise on the store manager's face when a person no taller than the counter marched up and explained that they could be making park benches instead of landfill. And this was at Whole Foods.

It's certainly going to take more than one kindergartner to make a difference. But while we consider the size of the challenge we face, let's not forget the power of starting small.

The next time you pack lunchboxes, invite your kids to count the pieces of trash they generate. Keep a journal for a week. Even better, keep the trash you generate in a box and count it at the end of your experiment. Review your findings together as a family. Then ask your kids how they could make that number a zero.

For more ideas, check out my son's tips on how to build a waste free lunch.

Jennifer Tyler Lee is the author of the forthcoming book The 52 New Foods Challenge (Penguin Random House/Avery 2014) and the creator of the award-winning healthy eating games, Crunch a Color®. Her family cooking adventures have been featured at Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, Rachael Ray's Yum-O!, Pottery Barn Kids, and Laurie David's Family Dinner.

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