Bringing Your Own Lunch to School or Work is Green

Bringing your own lunch to school or work is green—good for you, good for the planet, and good for your wallet.

School Lunch

Author's Son's Thomas the Tank Engine Lunch Box and Basket with FruitOur kids took lunch to school, first in lunch boxes and then brown paper lunch bags. Lunches consisted of sandwiches, fruit, chips, and dessert. For a time, the kids took disposable drink boxes for lunch. I shudder to remember a brief dalliance with package intensive, minimal nutrient, prepackaged lunches.

Having your kids take lunch to school has several benefits:

  • You and your kids know what it is in the food your kids are eating for lunch.
  • Your kids have an opportunity to learn about food and how to make healthy choices.
  • Your kids learn responsibility by helping to make lunch or preparing their own.
  • Your kids have more time to eat, relax, and play during lunchtime.

My Work Lunches

Throughout my working life, my lunch habits have varied widely.

When my job entailed visiting client’s offices and job sites, I frequently drove through fast food restaurants and ate in my car while driving (I know that is a bad habit). Other times I would go out to lunch with coworkers and we would split the bill. Mexican and sushi were my favorite types of food.

I ate at my desk more often than I would like to admit. The best lunches were those I packed myself and ate with a few coworkers at a local park.

For the past several years, I have been working out of my home office so I eat lunch at home. Lunch menus consist of peanut butter or tuna salad sandwiches, salads, soups, or leftovers.

Eating Lunch Out at Work

Over your work lifetime, eating lunch out can really add up in more ways than one. Let us say you eat lunch out 3 days a week for 48 weeks a year over a period of 40 years (3 x 48 = 144 days per year X 40 years = 5,760 lunches out).

Money

For our example, we will assume a mix of different lunch venues with an average cost of $10.00 per meal. Over 40 years, eating lunch out would cost you $57,600. That does not include gas and wear and tear on your vehicle if you drive to lunch (or greenhouse gas emissions). Imagine what you could do with an extra $57,600.

Health

Scale with Tape Measure and FruitRestaurants put ingredients and additives in food to make it taste good and keep you coming back. Foods that seem healthy, like a salad, may turn out to have a whopping calorie count and high-fat content. Some restaurant meals contain more than an entire day’s worth of calories.

Waste

The restaurant industry produces a huge amount of food and packaging waste.

Fast food and fast casual restaurants often serve meals in single-use, throw away packaging that ends up in landfills or sometimes on the side of the road. If only 50% of the 5,760 lunches in our example were of this type, visualize the pile of packaging waste that would be created by 2,880:

  • Carry Out Bags
  • Sandwich, Burger, Salad Packages
  • Chips, Fries, Dessert Packages
  • Drink Cups, Lids, Straws or Stirrers
  • Napkins (how many people grab just one?)
  • Catsup, Soy Sauce, Sugar Packets (how many people take just one?)

Taking Your Lunch to Work

Taking your lunch to work has similar benefits to taking lunch to school as well as saving money and reducing waste. With a little effort, taking lunch to work can be easy, inexpensive, healthy, and green.

  • Author's Gott Lunch Tote and Basket with FruitTake your lunch in a reusable insulated bag or another carrier, with a cool pack if needed.
  • Use reusable containers, utensils, napkins, and cups or bottles.
  • Just say no to bottled water.
  • Skip prepackaged frozen or ready-to-eat meals.
  • Assemble lunch the night before and leave it in the fridge (this is especially helpful for non-morning people like me).
  • Get out of the office at lunch. Eat on an outdoor patio, take a walk to park, or run errands on foot.

I have read several articles and blog posts aimed at helping people add variety to their “boring” homemade lunches. Interestingly, some health experts say simplifying meal choices and even eating the same thing for one meal every day may help people eat healthier. This would certainly streamline the process of preparing your take-to-work lunch.

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Paper vs. Cloth Table Napkins — Which are Greener?

Pile of Paper NapkinsA small and seemingly insignificant item, like a table napkin, can have a significant environmental impact. For instance, if 50% of the U.S. population (about 150MM people), used 1 paper napkin per meal 3 times a day, 164,250,000,000 (yes billion) napkins would be used over just a 1-year period.

What is the environmental impact of billions of napkins? Which is “greener,” paper or cloth napkins? In the time I allotted for researching this post, I found it difficult to locate “apples to apples” comparisons and came across limited data specific to napkins.

Below are some bits and pieces of information I collected along the way.

Napkin Background

Since the beginning, humans used their fingers to eat and we still do. Utensils have been around in various forms for thousands of years. Depending on one’s skill with utensils, eating may or may not be less messy. Before napkins, fingers and mouths were wiped with the back of one’s hand, bread, clothing, table coverings, you name it—methods still in use today.

The word napkin is derived from nappe (French for cloth or tablecloth) combined with the suffix kin (meaning little) and is defined as a small piece of cloth or paper, usually square, used while eating for protecting the clothes and wiping the fingers or lips.

Napkin History Highlights

  • Ancient Romans used cloths to wipe their fingers and mouth while dining.
  • During the middle ages, a cloth was hung from the edge of the table and served as a communal napkin.
  • Napkin with Napkin RingBy the 16th century, napkins had been separated from the table for individual use.
  • During the 19th century, napkin rings were created to help household members identify their napkins for reuse between washings.
  • Scott Paper introduced the paper napkin in the 1930s.

Paper Napkins

  • Material Source: trees, recycled paper (pre-consumer and post-consumer)
  • Number of Uses per Napkin: typically single-use
  • Cleaning: NA
  • Disposal: landfill, may be compostable

Cloth Napkins

  • Material Source: natural fiber crops (cotton, flax, hemp), fossil fuels (polyester)
  • Number of Uses per Napkin: varies depending on material, quality, number of washes (could last for 1 year or 25 or more years)
  • Cleaning: household napkins are typically used more than once and are thrown in with other laundry loads
  • Disposal: down cycle for use as a rag, landfill, may be compostable

Environmental Impact

All napkins use resources and energy, and produce pollutants and waste, during production, transportation, use, and disposal. There is wide variation in napkin material, size, and weight, which impacts how much water and energy are used during the life cycle of a particular napkin.

As an example, if 50% of the U.S. population used 3 paper napkins a day that would total 450,000,000 napkins for 1 day.

Blue Water Drop0.07 gallons of water is required to produce a 0.08-ounce paper napkin (not including water to grow the tree).  It would take 31,500,000 gallons of water to make the 450,000,000 paper napkins used in just one day.

This is equivalent to 477 Olympic size swimming pools or daily water use for 315,000 to 393,750 people (according to the U.S. Geological Survey, on average each person uses 80 to100 gallons of water per day).

For another example, let’s look at a cloth napkin. 119 gallons of water is required to produce a 1.4-ounce cotton napkin, plus water for washing over the life of the napkin.

Note: the above calculations are based on the weight of napkins from my household.

Paper vs. Cloth Napkins

A few months ago, it occurred to me most meals do not require a “standard” full-size double fold paper napkin (about 1 sq. ft). So I started cutting our supply of napkins in half while watching TV (a week supply takes just a few minutes). On the one hand it seems silly, even to me, but on the other hand, I instantly cut our napkin consumption by 50% which saves resources and money.

Recently we decided to try other napkin options. We broke out our collection of reusable napkins which consist of beige and holiday colors. We purchased natural colored (brown) paper napkins made with 100% recycled paper. They are the “standard” size so I’m still going to cut them in half.

What is your napkin policy? Even something simple like a napkin does have an environmental impact. Consider the following when choosing paper or cloth napkins:

Paper
  • Holiday Theme Paper NapkinsAvoid napkins that are more decorative than functional (for instance, some napkins look pretty but are made out of stiff material that does not actually clean your fingers).
  • Better yet, select napkins made from recycled paper not whitened with chlorine bleach.
  • Compost after use.
Cloth
  • Flax NapkinsMake sure material is suitable for use as a napkin and is soil resistant.
  • Cotton is a water and pesticide intensive crop. Consider organic cotton or an alternate material.
  • Save energy by washing in cold water and give yourself extra credit for line drying.
No Napkin
  • If you don’t need a napkin, then don’t use one.
  • Some people might not like the following option. Wiping one’s mouth and hands on one’s sleeve or pants does actually work, and requires no additional water or energy during washing or drying.

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