Waste-Free Lunches: Barriers and resources to get started

Mar 7, 2019

By Geoff MacDonald

Single use plastics and containers sold by fast food chains and grocery stores are causing people to protest across the globe. Major distributors in the UK have dramatically shifted their policies while students around the globe are advocating for a future of sustainable practices. This can be a tricky subject to discuss with younger students, but there are some simple changes in the classroom to introduce and encourage a sustainable lifestyle and avoid those wasteful single use materials.

Waste free lunch challenges have been around for over 10 years, but only recently have become popular around North American schools. The goal is to pack lunches with no single use plastic wrappers and reduce the net waste produced by the school. Parents and teachers are challenged to use reusable containers and food products without single use wrappers. Environmental educators such as myself love this classroom activity because it involves parents, promotes the reduction mind frame and does not cost much for the teachers, other than printing out information letters for parents.

There are some hidden obstacles that many teachers will identify before even thinking of implementing this challenge. Not every family will be financially or economically prepared to reduce the waste of their child’s lunch. Waste free lunches can cost a family more money to invest in reusable containers (which we all know go missing so easily) and to buy more expensive snack foods without plastic wrappers. The harsh reality is that a reductive lifestyle can be costly, but this is where organizations like The Gaia Project and other outreach partners can step in the support teachers and students.

The last thing an activity like this should do is isolate students by excluding them from an effort to improve the quality of their environment due to variables that are out of their immediate control. Though this is not a valid reason to avoid this meaningful classroom activity, there is room for a creative discussion to provide supports that allow every student to participate.

Steps to starting a Litterless Lunch program

1. This activity can be used for any age group of students, but the resulting conversations and dialogues will vary. Introduce this topic byasking your students:

  • Why do we throw away certain items?
  • Why do we get money back for bottles?
  • Why are single use plastic items so much cheaper?

2. Have students keep the trash from their lunches in a classroom bin or bag to see how much it really is (the first day with no notice to students). Dispose of trash after collecting and repeat this for a couple days. Students may notice a pattern, as the week goes on they are creating less trash. Have a discussion about why this happened and some techniques they used to accomplish it. If students get off track throughout the year, re-do this activity.

3. Some schools across Canada took a bold step and removed garbages from their school lunch areas and send the students trash back home with them to their parents. This shows parents how much trash is created from their child’s lunch with the idea that if they have to deal with it they will try to decrease the amount sent to schools.

To learn more about Canadian schools participating in this activity check out these online resources where you can find and print out letters for parent engagement.


Resources for Teachers – Recycle Alberta

Hundreds of thousands of Ontario students pledge to go waste free

About the author:

Geoff MacDonald completed a Master’s degree focused on inquiry-based science instruction and curriculum development and was also a teacher in New Brunswick. He now works with The Gaia Project to develop the New Brunswick Climate Change Education Plan.

Click here to learn more about Geoff.



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