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Disposable Lunch Facts - Items Carried in Work and School LunchesShare

Disposable Lunch Facts - Items Carried in Work and School Lunches



The Problem

  • • In 2009, the United States generated 13 million tons of plastics waste from containers and packaging, and 7 million tons of nondurable plastic waste (for example plates and cups). The combined total of nondurable disposables exceeded the 11 million tons of plastic durable goods, such as appliances [EPA]. Only 7 percent was recovered for recycling.
  • • Plastic cutlery is non-biodegradable, can leach toxic chemicals when handled improperly, and is widely used. Worldcentric.org estimates 40 billion plastic utensils are used every year in just the United States. The majority of these are thrown out after just one use.
  • • 3,460,000 tons of tissues and paper towels wound up in landfills in 2008.
  • • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 780,000 tons of plastic and polystyrene cups and plates were discarded in 2008.
  • Americans produce enough Styrofoam cups every year to circle the earth 436 times. These cups are completely non-biodegradable, deplete the Earth’s ozone layer, waste enormous amounts of landfill, and are deadly to marine life.
  • • The Container Recycling Institute claims that 2.81 million juice boxes were sold in the U.S. in 2006, most of which cannot be recycled due to the inseparability of the cardboard, plastic, and aluminum foil used in the product.
  • • An independent study done in June of 2010 by the Environmental Law Foundation found toxic levels of lead in more than 40 different juices and juice boxes.
  • • According to the EPA, Americans discarded about 2.7 million tons of aluminum, the largest source being used beverage and packaging containers. And in the time it takes you to read this sentence, more than 50,000 12-oz. aluminum cans were made. 
  • • Lunchtime trash is second only to office paper, as the leading source of school waste, according to Green Teach Magazine, 2004
  • • The Container Recycling Institute estimates that supplying plastic water bottles to American consumers in one year requires more than 47 million gallons of oil, the equivalent of one billion pounds of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere. 
  • • McDonald’s website claims to serve 60 million people globally per day, which means at least that many superfluous straws are used and thrown out each day. Taking into account other fast-food restaurants and convenience stores selling fountain drinks, straw waste is startling.


The Impact

  • • RecycleWorks.org estimates that an individual using a disposable lunch generates 4-8 ounces of garbage each day, which can add up to as much as 100 pounds of trash per year.
  • • According to the EPA, the average American school-age child throws away 67 pounds of lunch waste a year. With the population of kids in the US alone accounting for over 70 million, that’s over 4.6 billion pounds of waste that could be easily avoided.
  • • 65 percent of landfills are filled with organic Municipal Solid Waste like food, paper, cardboard, yard cliipings and recyclables, which can be reduced by simply bringing reusables and conserving. Methane is a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming.
  • • In the statistical breakdown of a 2008 cleanup by the Ocean Conservancy, numbers were kept on 43 different types of refuse. Cigarette butts were the most common. Plastic bags came in second. Food wrappers and containers were a close third.
  • • When plastics break down, like those used in cutlery, straws, bottles, baggies and plates, they don't biodegrade; they photodegrade. This means the materials break down to smaller toxic fragments which contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion.


The Solution

  • The solution is to embrace a cultural shift away from use-and-toss mentality.
  • • Use durable, long-lasting containers that will last years rather than disposable sandwich wraps, chip bags, fruit salad or pudding cups.
  • • Stop using disposable napkins and instead opt for durable, washable cloth napkins that won't wind up in a landfill.
  • Use a high-quality water bottle to bring a drink instead of a disposable container (like a juice box). Thermal-insulated ones will even keep your drink as cold or as hot as when you packed it.
  • • Do not use paper bags. A study on the life cycle of three types of disposable bags (single-use plastic, paper, and compostable plastic) showed that both compostable plastic and paper bags require more material per bag in the manufacturing process. This means "higher consumption of raw materials in the manufacture of the bags...[and] greater energy in bag manufacturing and greater fuel use in the transport of the finished product. ...The added requirements of manufacturing energy and transport for the compostable and paper bag systems far exceed the raw material use in the standard plastic bag system." (from a peer reviewed Boustead Consulting & Associates report)
  • • Promote waste-free lunches at your child's school using our resource page.
  • • For further ideas, see our selection of high-quality reusable lunch items in our Waste-Free Lunch collection.
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