Trash-Free School Lunches

Styrofoam lunch trays, of course, are not the only trash generated during lunch at our public schools.

In order to figure out how much trash Piney Branch Elementary School could reduce during lunch, we conducted a “waste audit” on May 4th, 2011. During the waste audit we collected and weighed all the school lunch trash for each grade. Then for two weeks, we did outreach within the school and to parents on how to pack trash-free lunches. We then planned a trash-free lunch day, May 18th, 2011. See our outreach flyer. On that day, we provided students eating from the cafeteria with a reusable tray and fork. We also asked students to separate any food scraps, which we collected in a bucket for composting. A local nonprofit, growingSoul, then delivered the compostables for composting on a local farm.

We again measured the trash to see the results of (1) our education campaign, (2) switching to reusable trays and forks, and (3) collecting food scraps for composting.

The recycling rate jumped from 14% to 72%! Most of this was due to collecting food scraps for composting, as they weighed a lot. But total materials produced dropped by 29 pounds! You can download our data and results here.

One interesting finding was that one-third by weight of total material was milk (both unopened and emptied in a bin for disposal). Maybe we should do some messaging around kids trying to drink their milk!

Trash-Free Lunch Tips


  • Sandwiches and other food in reusable containers
  • Durable forks and spoons
  • Whole fruits without packaging
  • Drinks in refillable containers that can be reused
  • Snacks purchased in bulk and brought in reusable containers.
  • Reusable ice packs
  • Cloth napkins

Don’t Include:

  • Individually wrapped snacks
  • Plastic baggies that are not reusable
  • Disposable forks and spoons
  • Straws
  • Drinks in cartons or pouches

Everything in a trash-free lunch can be eaten, reused, recycled, or composted!

Why Reduce Trash?

Did you know that every school lunch creates an average of 67 pounds of trash per school year? All the trash we generate at Piney Branch is burned in a county incinerator. By reducing the number of items in your lunch that must be thrown out, or only using those that can be eaten, reused, recycled, or composted, you can:

  • Prevent pollution
  • Conserve natural resources such as coal, oil, natural gas, and trees
  • Save energy
  • Save the Montgomery County school system money
  • Reduce the amount of trash burned
  • Be an environmental steward and make a difference in your environment and the environment of the future