Overcoming the Hurdles to the Litterless Lunch Success

Tips and tricks for overcoming barriers to the trash-free lunch

 While the litterless lunch isn’t so hard to achieve, that bold statement may sound hollow to the legions of parents, children, and teachers who have unsuccessfully tried it, or those who sense, even without purchasing their first set of reusable lunch containers that it is a bad idea.

Let’s take a look at some of the main perceived barriers and what you can do to overcome them.

The Wrong Incentives

A week's worth of trash from a First Grade classroom. Rick LeBlanc

In schools where financial rewards are received from recycling schemes for collecting drink containers, the generation of waste has been incentivized under the promise of upcycling. The system encourages the generation of trash. While cash-strapped schools need all of the financial support they can generate, the encouragement of single serving drink containers is an idea that parents should challenge

Parents Don't Have Time

​It is true there are incrementally extra steps involved in doling out servings from a large yogurt tub to a small reusable container, or in collecting the containers after school to wash them for the next day, but think of the benefits in terms of trash reduction, as well as better visibility into your child’s nutrition. For schools that have “pack in pack out,” or boomerang programs, you can see exactly what your children did not eat. 

Kids Don't Bring Home the Reusable Containers

 Why is this the wrong lid, and where did the reusable bottle cap go? The challenge of children returning home with the reusable containers was always a tough one for me as a parent. Missing containers, missing lids, missing reusable bottles or caps - it seemed like those too often fugitive-at-large pieces were just bringing additional stress to the already daunting challenge of litterless lunches. The good news today is that there are options available for clearly labeling your child’s litterless reusable lunch gear. Take a look at Mabel’s Labels or namebubbles, to list two vendors of such labels. Another option is to purchase a lunch box with its own partitions, so as to eliminate the complexity of managing too many containers. For example, check out Yumbox. Last but not least, regular feedback and encouragement can help build the right behaviors for bringing the reusables home.

Dirty Containers Are Disgusting

While there may be a curiosity in exploring what Billy did or did not eat his lunch, there is little parental fulfillment in dealing with blackening banana peels and sandwich crusts. Unfortunately, cleaning the reusable containers comes with the territory. I found that having the right kitchen organics container really helped in minimizing the cleanup process.

Extra Hassle for Teachers

Litterless lunches should be a positive for teachers, correct? This isn’t necessarily the case. Kids may be looking for utensils to borrow, or want to wash their reusable containers in the classroom after finishing their lunch. Then, of course, there is the challenge of guiding children in making sure the right containers make it home with the right kids - hence the importance of labels as discussed above. Bottom line, however, litterless lunches can help keep the classroom trash bins empty, and keep empty packaging off of the classroom floor and play areas.

Lack of Water Stations for Refilling Bottles

One of the challenges in supporting children in the use of reusable water bottles rather than disposable drink containers, is in making sure that the right support structure is in place, whether it is in teachers frequently reinforcing successful litterless lunch efforts in the classroom, eliminating financial incentives to generate trash, or in such areas as making the refilling of water bottles convenient. Don't forget to read my article, Back to School Tips for Litterless Lunches.

Worth the Effort

There are certainly obstacles to creating and sustaining litterless lunch programs for children, but it is worth the effort, offering an opportunity to instill environmentally responsible behaviors, better nutritional management, and just perhaps to save money in the process.