How to Pack a Waste Free Lunch

This is a very easy change you can make for the environment. By carrying your lunch this way, you also avoid trips to restaurants or the cafeteria and you can eat better. Try packing a lunch without any trash left.


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    Use a reusable lunch box, not a disposable bag. Choose something durable that you can use for a long time. Many good, insulated models exist.
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    Freeze your ice pack the night before. If you pack your lunch the night before, you can also leave the packed bag in the refrigerator overnight. It will stay cold longer with the packaging chilled also.
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    Pour your drink into a reusable thermos, water bottle, or leak-proof cup. Avoid items that are not recyclable, like boxed juices or bags.
    • This goes for coffee, too. If you drink coffee, make it yourself at home and carry it in a thermos. Use a reusable cup or mug for the stuff. To cut down on even more waste, make yourself some reusable coffee filters and be sure to compost your coffee grounds.
    • A thermos can also keep soup hot.
    • Depending on where you work or study, another option might be just to take a reusable bottle or cup and leave it there to refill from the drinking fountain, watercooler, or coffee machine.
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    Use fabric napkins, tea towels, or small cotton bandannas instead of paper napkins or paper towels. If you didn't have to wipe up any big spills, you'll probably find that you can leave a fabric napkin there for multiple meals.
    • When it gets dirty, put the new napkin or towel in when you take the old one out, so you don't end up at your destination without one.
    • A tea towel can also serve as a place mat and/or to wrap your entire lunch if you do not have a lunch box. See How to Do Furoshiki (Wrap and Carry Things With Square Cloth).
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    Use reusable containers for your food. There are plenty of choices besides plastic wrap and plastic bags.
    • Wrap your sandwich in a "Wrap-n-mat" or similar item. This item is plastic on one side to keep your sandwich fresh, as cling wrap does, but it is cloth on the other side and doubles as place mat.
    • Place your sandwich in a plastic container. A two- or three-cup flat, plastic box holds a sandwich, keeps it fresh, and prevents it from getting squished. It may take up a bit more space, so choose a lunch box with that in mind, if you can.
    • Use durable, reusable containers to hold wet or messy items: pudding, yogurt, dips, salad dressings, etc.
    • Use reusable fabric sandwich/snack bags to hold dry items: crackers, grapes, chips, sandwiches, etc.
    • Consider Mason jars, the kind used for canning. Some spaghetti sauce also comes in these jars. Save the lids from spaghetti sauce and reuse them to carry things like soup (if you have a microwave where you're going) so they won't leak. Only use glass containers if the lunch box won't take abuse on a playground.
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    Pack a real fork, spoon, and table knife, or a pocket knife for adults. Thrift stores and garage sales frequently have inexpensive, mismatched flatware (if you would rather have a separate one for your lunch box to avoid breaking up a set you use at home). You could reuse plastic ones instead, but metal is a lot sturdier and easier to work with.
    • Get a couple of sets so you can immediately replace the fork, spoon, and knife any time you take dirty ones out.
    • If you like, you can make a pouch for your fork and spoon, to keep them clean.
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    Pack leftovers, especially if you have access to a microwave. Using up leftovers that would otherwise go uneaten means less waste. If you like to take leftovers for lunch, get in the habit of preparing extra food whenever you cook at home.
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    Avoid single-serve and heavily packaged items.
    • Refill small containers from larger ones. You can carry applesauce, yogurt, trail mix, dried fruits and nuts, crackers, and all sorts of things this way, and you get to choose your own portions.
    • Buy the ingredients for several lunches at once. You will generally use much less packaging buying larger quantities of basic ingredients than buying prepared meals. Use reusable grocery bags when you go.
    • Cook for yourself and your family. If you are in the habit of taking a granola bar, candy bar, packaged muffin or can of soup, see if you can come up with home-cooked alternatives. Muffins, corn bread, and cookies are all easy to make at home.
    • Choose fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned or packaged. Most come in their own truly recyclable packaging, so don't forget to put any peels or cores back into one of the other containers in your lunchbox and take them home to compost.
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    Buy local or grow your own food. Trash is not the only environmental cost of a boxed lunch. Choose foods that haven't been shipped in from long distances, and you'll cut down on fuel usage. You'll eat fresher food, too.
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    Eat less meat. Meat takes more energy and resources to produce. Skip meat on certain days. If you do take meat in your lunch, put it in with lots of other stuff, such as in a salad, a sandwich or wrap with plenty of veggies, or a hearty mostly-vegetable soup. You'll save money this way, too.
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    Pack no more or less than you need. You eat lunch every day, so you have many opportunities to notice how much you usually need. If you pack too little, you may end up supplementing your lunch with a trip to the vending machine or cafeteria. If you pack too much and don't eat it, food will go to waste. Pack foods you or your family like. If you or they don't like it, it won't get eaten, and it will go to waste.
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  • Wrap soft fruits like peaches and pears in whatever you're using as a napkin, or use a container to protect them from bruising or squishing.
  • Carry recyclable containers home if your school or office doesn't offer recycling. Better yet, use reusable containers.
  • Look at any waste you do create each day. Is there a package or napkin left in your lunchbox at the end of the day? See if you can improve on matters.
  • Bandannas make fantastic cloth napkins. They don't wrinkle much and absorb better than many cloth napkins that are made with polyester. Consider buying a large pack on-line and use them for meals at home, too.
  • If you wind up with a banana peel or apple core to dispose, take it home and compost it or start a vermicomposting bin.


  • Never litter. If you do have trash left after lunch, put it in its appropriate bin.

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