Elusive eco-friendly lunchbox

With April’s designation as Earth
Month, it’s time to address the question — what to do with all those used
wrappers, bottles and baggies.

It turns out a lot of that plastic
is finding its way into the cafeteria trash can. The US Environmental
Protection Agency estimates that the average school-age child generates 67
pounds of lunchtime waste each year, much of which comes from packaging.

On case in point: That translates
to an estimated 110-million-plus pounds of waste a year in Los Angeles County,
California, schools alone. While we spend a good deal of time talking about
what goes into kids’ lunchboxes — the organic, the sustainable, the healthful
  what about the lunchboxes themselves?

One parent spent hours researching
containers for her preschooler’s lunch, polling parents about practicality and
emailing manufacturers about BPA, or Bisphenol A, a chemical that can be found
in many containers and that some researchers believe may have adverse health
effects.

The conclusion? Most eco-friendly
containers are a pain in the neck. Many can’t be put in the microwave, or they
require hand-washing. What working parent has the time? And so, this particular
parent began her quest for the ultimate lunch solution: low-maintenance,
waste-free containers that were reusable, functional and BPA-free. No plastic
baggies.

 

Eco-friendly not so easy

Here is her account of how it went:

I didn’t know that packing a
2-year-old’s lunch would produce so much angst.

I already had purchased a $12 L.L.
Bean lunchbox — almost identical to the model I carried some 30 years ago. A
representative from L.L. Bean’s assured me that the lining was BPA-free.
Although I probably could have found some irreproachably eco-friendly lunch bag
made of organic hemp and tied with ribbon woven from fallen banana leaves at a
fair-trade local farm, sometimes the greener option is to reuse what you
already have. The good news about the polyurethane-coated nylon exterior of my
L.L. Bean lunchbox: It’s free of phthalates, which have been linked to hormone
problems in children. It’s also durable, which means I won’t toss it into the
landfill after a couple of uses.

“People don’t think about the fact
that it’s equally as bad to throw out decent products in order to upgrade to
slightly better products,” says Dana Kellin McCrane, who designs jewellery
under her Dana Kellin label. A mother of two, Ms McCrane co-chaired a green
team at her children’s school in North Hollywood last year to raise awareness
about packing waste-free lunches. “Our green team does the research on products
and presents the info to the other parents. We found that parents really want
to do this.”

But the products have to work for
kids too, she adds. Can your child open the container? Is it spill-proof?

One company that rates highly on
McCrane’s list is Lunchbots, which sells food-grade stainless-steel containers
that are dishwasher safe. I had seen these on the shelves at Whole Foods but
hadn’t given them a second thought until I was sitting down to lunch in Little
Tokyo, staring down at a beautifully arranged bento box. Could I find a miniature
version for my son?

Several eco-friendly,
bento-inspired products are on the market, including PlanetBox, Laptop Lunches
and Goodbyn. Even though their plastic was BPA-free, I decided stainless steel
seemed the most durable option.

 

The winner

The winner: a Lunchbots Duo compact
stainless-steel box with a divider. It fits perfectly into his lunchbox
alongside his Sigg water bottle, cloth napkin and stainless utensils.

I use one side of the Lunchbots Duo
for a main course, such as a sandwich, and on the other I use two nonreactive
silicone 2-ounce pinch bowls to hold fruits, veggies or cheese cubes. To keep
food from spoiling, I tuck a reusable Kids Konserve nontoxic ice pack with a
sweat-free cover made from recycled plastic bottles in the inside mesh pocket
of the lunchbox.

Reusable silicone muffin cups also
work as dividers. They are dishwasher safe and won’t leach chemicals into your
food when heated. I like baking a batch of whole wheat macaroni and cheese in
these cups for individual portions that can be frozen and safely reheated.

“Packing waste-free is not about
spending a lot more money,” says Paige Rodgers, co-founder of Fabkins, which
produces organic cotton napkins designed for kids. “Look at what you already
have, think about buying in bulk to reduce package waste, and you’re saving
both money and the environment.”

In fact, looking around your home
is probably the greenest path to packing waste-free.

 

Bandanas

“Bandanas make great napkins,” says
Sara Stein, co-owner of the S.PR fashion public relations firm and mother of
two. “I am not about what I need to go out and buy but more about what is
already in my house that I can reuse.”

At her daughter’s preschool,
packing a waste-free lunch is recommended but not mandated. Ms Stein says she’s
not militant about plastics but tries to take a practical approach.

“There are some mornings when I
don’t have time to pack lunch,” she says. “I might stop by the grocery store
and ask them to fill up my daughter’s thermos with mac ‘n’ cheese, but that’s
one less plastic container used.”

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