A Quest for a Plastic Free Lunch

September began to loom on the horizon and that meant only one thing… the return to school! I realised that I would soon have to go back to making lunches for my husband and three children every single day. It’s not that I dread making lunches for them – that’s the bit I actually love – but over the summer we had done some thinking and some travelling and the one thing we had become aware of was how much plastic eating a packed lunch could generate.

It all started at the middle of summer when my oldest was watching videos that came up on her social media news feed.

I was in the kitchen making sandwiches one day and my daughter came straight up stairs and started rifling through the drawers, emptying all the plastic straws she could find the in house into the recycling bag.

Me: What are you doing?

Daughter: Throwing way all the evil plastic straws I can find.

Me: Evil? Why? You love straws. You beg me to have thick ones for slushies and dotted ones for picnics and bendy ones for milkshakes – you always have a reason to buy them, even though we already have some, and anything new in the straw department calls to you from the super market shelves, beseeching you to be bought… and you listen!

Daughter: Not anymore! I just watched a video of a turtle. It was pulled out of the sea all wrapped in plastic junk, and it was really distressed, even after it was free – then the rescuers noticed something in its nose … and pulled it out. (*sniff sniff*) It was a straw, Mum, and when they tried to remove it … the … turtle squealed and cried … and … and… (* more violent sniffing*) … It was HORRIBLE, Mum, horrible! (*Lots and lots and lots of tears*)

My head said: ‘Hallelujah! No more pointless pieces of plastic cluttering up my drawers and no more wasting money

My mouth said: Poor Baby! We won’t buy any turtle torturing pieces of plastic ever again. (YESSS! Mental fist pump!)

After that experience my daughter became a driving force in reducing the plastic and disposables that we used wherever we were. Up until that point I was the one trying to keep plastic out of our house, and it was a pretty lonely road at times. As she talked to family about it, we all became committed to the principle and began, each of us in our own way, to reduce our plastic footprint.

The summer became a round of purging the plastic we already had, and then taking great efforts to not procure anymore. When we ate on vacation we chose food vendors that did not offer plastic carry out boxes, or used plastic cutlery. We didn’t buy plastic souvenirs and refused plastic bags. It actually became quite liberating to realise that I, me personally, was not contributing to the swirling plastic garbage gyres around the world. Not a huge victory in terms of the world junk crisis, but a victory to me none the less. The feeling didn’t last long. Reality hit me with a bump.

It was soon to be September. And I had four lunches a day to fill. We couldn’t afford for them to eat out with vendors that only used paper/compostable packing every lunch time, but I also felt that the 65, single use, completely plastic, zipper baggies that would last for 200 years in landfill that I produced each week to contain the food, was more than I could cope with. It has to be reduced.

It was a bit of Herculean task and took me a month to seek out alternatives, put in strategies and source something I was comfortable with, but here’s what I found out:

Possible plastic free lunch container choices:

  • Stainless Steel ‘Bento’ style boxes
  • Mason Jars
  • Wood Lunch boxes
  • Cloth Lunch Bags

At the time I thought that replacing their plastic lunch boxes would be the easiest thing on my list! OH! How wrong I was!

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Stainless Steel Bento boxes are beautiful, and I LOVED THEM! I dreamt about them! And in a middle aged womanly kind of way – even lusted after them! 100% recyclable, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but also cost around $80 -$140 for one the size that fits in your handbag. It also does not guarantee to be leak free as there are no rubber seals. Some of the inserts were also … plastic! I was drooling in the store and desperately wanted to buy them, but I needed four, and the lack of tight fitting lid cut down what I could send out in them. Last night’s leftovers smeared all over the bottom of your backpack? No thanks! So on price and practicality, my much wanted and lusted after stainless steel bento’s scored low.

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Wooden lunch boxes and organic cloth bags were about equal in cost and practicality. There’s a lot to choose from, but they are bulky, and the wood ones looked … unfit for the job of holding in all the fresh fruit and veg I crammed into my teenage children’s lunch boxes. The cloth ones were all extremely feminine with bows and ribbons and all the stuff most boys would be embarrassed to carry their lunch in, and many had … plastic boxes inside. They are still expensive (around $40 each) but again no, seals, so not airtight. But I wondered if I could find some eco-friendly bags to put the food in. If I could, it was a possibility. It wasn’t …

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Mason jars to the rescue! First of all – they were free! I had a load as I am a canner, but I’m sure if you ask round someone has some they haven’t used for ages hanging around looking for a new home and the lids and rings can be got for low cost at the dollar store. They come in different sizes and are air tight, so I could securely contain hummas, leftovers, salad dressing, homemade yogurt etc, with no worry about it creeping round inside their bags as they walked. The only drawback, was they were heavy. But no one has complained yet.

I decided to use mason jars for juicy things, and given all the factors above, the most eco-friendly thing I could do with the rest was … to use their old plastic lunch boxes until they died. Which will be a long time, as they are already 6 years old and no sign of giving out. After all, I am trying to reduce the amount of plastic going to landfill and throwing away perfectly good lunch boxes seemed extremely eco-unfriendly.

With that sorted I move on to plastic problem number two.

Wrapping up sandwiches, wraps, biscuits and even small fruit so it didn’t run away and get squashed was always the job of the dreaded plastic baggie. How was I going to solve that one!

I spent a while surfing the net and only found two viable options:

  • Cloth bags
  • Waxed fabric (like plastic wrap, but cloth covered in wax)

It surprised me that there was not more choice, but all the solutions I found (all six of them…) were variations on that theme.

I chose to go down the cloth baggie route as the waxed material just sounded too greasy. It would pick up all the fluff and debris on the table where it sat, and I wasn’t too keen on that. I do have other devious uses for the waxed fabric food wrap, but I think that’s best kept for another article!

After making the choice of baggies, I was very disappointed to find that I couldn’t get them locally and would have buy them from the internet, even worse, three different stores, and then have them shipped to me. I can understand why – the baggies I bought will last me years! Like cloth diapers, you make an initial investment, then that’s it! There is no imminent return custom on cloth baggies. I get the feeling these babies are going to be useable for decades and handed down to my grandchildren and by which time they’ll be ultra-retro so back in style! Double win!  But that makes it a slow mover for stores who have to sell to survive.

The ones I bought and tried were:

Lunchskins from 3GreenMoms

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I really didn’t know what to expect with these bags, but the LunchSkins came first.

I bought sandwich size, and super sandwich size with Velcro fasteners. They are cloth, have great designs and are very roomy. They fasten brilliantly, and can fit all kinds on lunch items in, from biscuits to bagettes! They are not airtight when you seal them, but I’m beginning to realise that our reliance on plastic has conditioned me to think that where food is concerned it’s ‘airtight or bust’. I have kept food for a week in the fridge in a lunchskin with no problems of it drying out or spoiling. The same with my families lunches. I make them the night before and have no problem with things going stale in that time frame. It boggles my mind at how good these bags are!

Full price they are a little on the steep side (Around $9.99 USD each) but I bought the old designs that were on sale for $5.99 and $6.99 as a new range was coming in, and took advantage of the their ‘back to school’ promotion which gave me one free bag with every two I bought. I also received a coupon for 20% off my next order making them affordable.

The thing I liked most about lunchskins is that they are washable in the dishwasher. You simply pop them in open and upside down so they stand on the open end and the water can swish around inside the bag, with your other items. I wash them once a week as they come clean easily by wiping with a damp cloth for any other minor spills. You can’t use the straight out the dishwasher as the soft side of the Velcro comes out very wet but dries quickly overnight.

The only drawback I have found is that it is coated with some kind of layer inside the bag and I can’t find out what chemicals (if any) are in that, but my research did tell me it was BPA, lead and Phthalate free as well as ‘toxin free’. I am very happy with that as it must be a whole lot healthier than the plastic baggies I used to use!

Bumkins

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From Bumkins Bags I purchased sandwich bags ($4.95 USD each) and snack bags ($6.95 USD for 2), but I was really drawn in by the bag designs! They do a whole range of well-known children’s characters from Disney, Dr. Seuss, DC, Marvel, and others and I was completely sold! Shame on me!

These arrived a little later than the LunchSkins, but unlike the Lunchskins which are made in America, these bags are made in China, then shipped to America so had travelled half the world before they even got to me. Every single bag also came wrapped in plastic where the lunchskins came in recycled packaging and arrived ‘naked’.

The bags themselves are BPA, lead, PVC and Phthalate free and claim to be waterproof, but they are made out of some kind of nylon or polyurethane which in essence is a manmade version of … plastic!

Those two drawbacks alone put it at a disadvantage, but the bags are good at what they do, containing edible lunch items, but not as convenient as the lunchskins. The Bumkins bags have zippers which makes the neck much narrower than the Velcro ones, and if you put salad in a sandwich it takes longer to slide it into the bag as there isn’t much room to squeeze it past the zip. The snack bags are great for small fruits like grapes and blueberries and crackers are still fresh the next day.

You wash the bags in the clothes washer, turning them inside out, but they must be air dried. They dry quickly and wash nicely, but don’t seem to come as clean when wiped with a cloth so need washing every few days. This means you need more bags to cope whilst they are in the wash – or be highly organized. NAH!

All in all I liked them for snacks, but a little less convenient than the lunchskins.

Wrap-N-Mat

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The Wrap-n-mat seemed to be a great idea – a napkin that you folded into a pouch to enclose a sandwich, until I got it …

It arrived from Colorado last, wrapped in lots of fabric, but doesn’t say where it is made. I’m not entirely sure they are made in America as the information isn’t noted. It is indeed a cloth like napkin – on one side… and polypropylene plastic in the other. It is BPA, lead, PVC and Phthalate free, but I can’t get over the plastic inside. It is simply sewn together so I can’t see it being as robust as the other two options, but it is reusable and easy to wipe clean.

It’s a little bit of a faff to wrap up a sandwich (watch the tutorial! BAHAHA!), even more of a faff if it’s a bagel, but you get used to it, and for larger items that don’t fit into either of the other bags above it’s an option. But believe me, if the food is an odd shape – factor in twenty mins of wrestling the corners to get them to seal so that none of the food is exposed to the elements and spoils.

It’s a simple idea that works but I can’t get over the price point. They have some fabulous designs, pirates, robots, butterflies, but standard size mats are $8.95 USD each, and that seems a lot for what they are. You could easily make your own for a fraction of the cost, but to be honest, I’d invest in Lunchskins or Bumkins. They do the job much more efficiently and can’t cost much more than buying the materials. If you’re frugal you can get them at great prices by biding your time and shopping around.

Did all these fun reusable lunch bags save me from my plastic baggies addiction? I WISH I could say a whole hearted ‘YES’ here, but all I can truthfully say is ‘nearly’. None of the bags are airtight, which is not a problem as crackers stay fresh overnight, but cereal and rice crackers didn’t. If I pack those up in their lunches I do use a small sized snack bag or they won’t eat it. I do, however, clean out the baggie and reuse it to try and sap my eco-conscience! Pickles and cut tomatoes also pose a problem, can only really be used in the lunchskins and not the bumkins, but are a lot less messy or juicy in a baggie. Again when it’s all leaked out of reusable bags it tends not to get eaten, but I have gone down from 65 a week – to 3 every three weeks! I think I can be proud of that!

Although the ultimate quest for a 100% plastic free lunch still continues (still lusting after the stainless steel bento boxes) I am really happy with what I have. Buying these bags made me take up bread making again, making more healthy options for lunch and really looking into how much ‘waste’ I make – food, plastic or otherwise. It just feels good to be doing my little bit to live a more simple life and that gives me the motivation to do more.

I think I have a lot to thank that turtle for.

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