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The curse of plastics: school lunches 101

Plastic is everywhere.

It’s coffee mugs, water bottles and lunch containers — really anything you use on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it is also killing the planet. Enough plastic is thrown away every year to circle around the earth four times. It is creating garbage islands in the ocean and killing one million sea birds, not to mention 1000,000 marine animals, annually. Only five per cent of the plastic we produce is recoverable, a sad fact when you consider it takes 500 to 100 years to degrade in landfills.

In other words, we have a problem.

When faced with such an insurmountable environmental problem such as this, I always tell myself to take it one step at a time. How can people begin the process of lowering plastic use from our lives? Let’s start with the lunches we send to school with our kids and bring to work. Not only would this transition help the environment, but it would contribute to our health as well. As it stands, 93 per cent of North Americans test positive for BPA, a common toxic chemical found in plastic. At the same time, ‘brown bag lunches’ contribute 67 pounds of waste by the end of the school year, pressuring the need for reusable containers and alternative options.

Here are a few tips on alternatives you can use to create plastic-free, health-conscious, and environmentally-friendly lunches.

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1. Stainless steel or glass lunch containers

Instead of using plastic lunch containers, stainless steel or glass is the much-preferred alternative. Though glass and steel containers can often be too heavy for children’s lunches, the ECOlunchbox has come up with an alternative where the stainless steel is quite thin and makes the container much lighter. There are quite of a few lighter stainless steel options that can be ordered online. Glass jars are another alternative that can be used for meals on-the-go. They have a strong seal to avoid spills and can be easily washed and re-used.

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2. Fabric snack bags

Fabric snack bags are another environmentally-friendly alternative that are gaining ground in the eco-community. Instead of the dreaded plastic bag, try using a snack bag with a zipper. The fabric snack bags come with a resistant lining to alleviate stains, but they must be washed weekly. Though this seems like a pain, how much trouble is it really to throw the snack bags in with the dish towels on laundry day? The bags come in a variety of colours and can even be a fun home sewing project with the kids if you are feeling creative. Certain fabric snack bags offered online are even dishwasher safe, making it even easier to clean them.

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3. Glass or stainless steel water bottle and/or coffee mug

Plastic water bottles are one of the most wasteful plastic items and are constantly being thrown out or littered onto the streets, only to make their way to the ocean. Buying a reusable water bottle and coffee mug is a responsible consumer choice. While you are it, why not make them both stainless steel? There are 100 per cent stainless steel beverage containers, and if there happens to be a small portion of plastic on the container, ensure it is BPA-free and recyclable.

A furoshiki design. Photo by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

4. Wrapped lunch boxes

Wrapped lunch boxes, a traditional Japanese custom known as “furoshiki”, is becoming widely popular in North America. By wrapping your lunch in a series of folds, it saves using a plastic bag or lunch box with plastic components on it. The “furoshiki” is used to transparent bento box lunches and is also used as table mat for lunch, making it a dual purpose lunch carrier. There are many ways to wrap a “furoshiki, and a few options for lunches are offered here.

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5. BPA-free PETE Plastics

There are some items where it is really difficult to find completely plastic-free options. If this is the case, I believe it is important to understand the labelling on plastic items so you can choose the most recyclable option. The PETE, often known as Plastic #1 or Polythylene Terephthalateon, label is one of the easiest plastics to recycle and is often found on peanut butter containers, beer bottles, and salad dressing bottles. HDPE, also known as plastic #2 in its label or High-density Polythylene, is considered safe and is recyclable. It is found on milk jugs, juice bottles, and toiletries. It is often opaque. V or PVC, also known as Plastic #3 or vinyl, is one of the more dangerous types of plastic and can be recycled, but may not be accepted by your local recycling agency. It is found in plastic wrap and should be avoided. There are seven common standards of plastic, and the first three are the most common. Recognizing all seven types of plastic though will benefit you as an educated and environmentally sustainable consumer.

 

In 1967’s popular movie, The Graduate, Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin, “There’s a great future in plastics”. Little did people know he really was foretelling the future. Plastic is in nearly every faucet of our lives, but being educated and aware of the various types of plastic is important. Being a responsible consumer is a brave way to help save the planet and therefore avoid environmentally-detrimental items when you can. I know I’m going home to purge my house of unnecessary lunch containers and water bottles to then replace with more environmentally conscious options.

How about you?