School Lunches: The Cost of Convenience


It's almost that time again. You had a break from packing school lunches for the summer, and now the new school year is just around the corner. 

A home- packed lunch can take on many forms. There are so many new packaging styles that make lunches simple! Toss 'em in; an applesauce pouch, little baby carrots bag, packaged sandwich, granola bar and a juice pouch. Boom! Lunch is packed. Each one an individual serving; it's so easy, so very convenient. And what's more, the lunch cleanup is simple, too – a slam dunk into garbage can and it all goes away. Or does it?

Clark County Green Schools works with Green Teams at local schools on waste- reduction projects. Recently, local elementary students wondered why there was so much garbage being produced during lunch. These students monitor the sort line at their school where they separate their garbage, food waste and recycling. These efforts prevent huge amounts of garbage; however, the cafeteria garbage can was still filled to the top more than once each day. We helped the students figure out why. 

We worked with the Green Team on a waste audit, where we analyzed the garbage and recycling to reveal one of the causes of the excessive garbage: individual serving packages. … Chip bags, applesauce and pudding cups, juice pouches and, granola bar wrappers, etc. Individual serving packages filled the garbage can.

Is this the only way to pack a lunch? It sure is convenient and easy. We decided to go on a discovery mission with these students and compare buying individual serving packages to buying in bulk. Individually packaged items can cost more, sometimes by quite a lot. 

 We worked with some students to analyze the cost and environmental savings. Here's what we found:

A jar of applesauce costs $.15 per serving while an individual cup is $.38 and a pouch comes in at $.69. Using a washable container from home generates no waste, while the cup and pouch need to go to the landfill. The jar of applesauce can be recycled. Send a washable spoon.

Crackers from a large box cost $.27 per serving while individual bags come in at $.33 per serving. Again using a washable container makes this a nearly zero waste choice, as the box is recyclable and just the large inner bag needs to go to the landfill.

Juice pouches create lots of garbage in school lunches. Not only do you have to throw out the pouch, but the straw and straw wrapper too. And who can get the straw in the pouch without spilling on yourself, anyway? Why not send cold water in a reusable bottle? While the economic cost of juice in a bottle versus pouch is about the same, the health and environmental impacts of taking water in your own bottle make this a great choice!

We know there is a high monetary cost to haul garbage. However, there is a very real environmental cost to disposing of that garbage, as well. In Clark County, we routinely produce mountains of garbage – , more than 6,500 tons each and every week. All that garbage needs to go somewhere. Our landfills are packed with single- serving containers that were used for a very short time and then tossed.

So as you prepare for the new school year, weigh the cost of it all:; economic, environmental and time. We're all strapped for time, but find easy methods and containers that work for you. Work towards waste- free lunch packing, one container at a time. Make one switch and see how it goes. Small changes make a big impact over the course of 180 days of school. Why not try it and see? For more about school waste audits, waste reduction help, waste- free lunches and school green team info, check out 

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