California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Zero-Waste Lunch

In most cases, lunchroom waste (e.g., food and food packaging) is a large component of a school district’s waste stream. By implementing a zero-waste lunch program, students, parents/caregivers, and teachers can work together to prepare lunches that reduce the amount of trash being thrown away. These efforts can also save parents/caregivers money in the long run. In fact, according to the U.S. EPA, packing a waste-free lunch saves an average student $250 and 67 pounds of trash per nine-month school year.

Pack a zero-waste lunch with these tips:

  • Avoid disposable lunch bags.
  • Use lunch boxes or fabric bags for lunch.
  • If paper bags are used, save and reuse them.
  • Avoid prepackaged single-serving containers.
  • Buy your favorite treats, such as chips, applesauce, or yogurt, in large packages/containers or in bulk rather than single serving packaging.
  • Repackage snacks in reusable containers such as margarine tubs to avoid using single-serving packaging (e.g., plastic bags).
  • If plastic bags are used, they can often be washed out with soapy water and reused.
  • Use reusable containers or Thermoses for drinks and soups.
  • Pack a cloth napkin and reusable utensils.
  • Bring fresh fruit since it doesn't require any additional packaging.

Zero-Waste Lunch Activities For Schools

  • US EPA developed a Waste-Free Lunch poster to help students learn how to reduce, reuse, and recycle items in their school lunches. The poster can be used to get students interested in zero-waste lunches and learn how to organize a Waste-Free Lunch Day.
  • Incorporate the concept of a zero-waste lunch in economics, science, and environmental curricula.
  • Encourage competitions based on which class can produce the least waste from lunches per student. Students could also weigh the garbage from the cafeteria, post and regularly update a wall graph demonstrating their success in reducing waste.
  • Sell zero-waste lunch kits, which could include a durable bag, Thermos, and durable sandwich and snack containers, as a fund-raiser.


Work with your school’s child nutrition and janitorial staff to designate an area for recycling and composting or vermicomposting (composted with worms) efforts.

  • Organize a "green team" to remind students how to sort lunch items in order to avoid contamination of collected materials. Also, the green team can make signs to encourage students to put recyclables in designated areas.
  • If reusable containers cannot be used, encourage recyclable drink containers.  Milk now comes in small recyclable polyethylene bags, and many juices and waters are packaged in recyclable plastic or aluminum.  These containers can be redeemed at many recycling centers or may be collected by a local recycler or non-profit organization (e.g. local conservation corps). Remember to check each plastic container for the material container code to see if it can be recycled in your area.
  • For more information about school recycling, check out CalRecycle’s brochure on easy steps to starting a school recycling program.

Take Leftovers Home.  Leftover foods don't have to be garbage. Take leftovers home for the family compost pile or coordinate with the school garden staff to collect compostable food waste for on-site composting or vermicomposting.

Composting or vermicomposting lunch ware. If your school uses plates or trays, make sure they are made of materials that can be reused, recycled, composted, or vermicomposted. Generally speaking, aluminum trays can be recycled. Paper trays can be recycled where opportunities exist if they do not contain significant food residue.  Paper trays can also be composted or vermicomposted even if they have a light wax coating. Composting and vermicomposting work best when the paper is shredded first. Some schools incorporate the use of biodegradable eating utensils, although this has not worked well for vermicomposting.

Purchasing for Waste Reduction

Everything we purchase eventually will be discarded. How much packaging we purchase, whether an item is toxic, reusable, recyclable, compostable, or has recycled content depends on the decisions made when the item is purchased.

  • Buy Recycled Products. Many reusable products are now made with recycled content. Purchasing these items completes the recycling loop by creating a market for recyclable materials. Close the recycling loop by purchasing recycled products for your school district. The easiest and most widely available recycled products that schools use are recycled copy paper, hand towels, toilet seat covers, and toilet tissue. You can also purchase school supplies and other goods made with post-consumer recycled content. Such materials include lunch trays, lunch bags, pens, pencils, rulers, clipboards, ink jet and toner cartridges, stadium cups, etc. You can find these and other recycled items by searching CalRecycle's Recycled-Content Product database.
  • Disposable vs. Permanent Ware. The School Nutrition Foundation conducted a study to develop environmental and cost profiles for the production, use, and end-of-life management of disposable and reusable ware used in school cafeterias. Based on the serving ware systems studied, reusable compartment trays had a lower environmental impact and were less expensive when compared to disposable serving ware options. For more information, see The Cost and Environmental Benefits of Using Reusable Food Ware in Schools, A Minnesota case study, October 2014 (PDF, 412 KB).

More Information

  • Zero-Waste Cafeteria--Harding Elementary School in Santa Barbara County now composts or recycles all the waste it generates in the lunch program, including disposable plates and sporks made from vegetable-based materials. This is a perfect example of a zero-waste cafeteria in California!
  • Zero-Waste Policy--Oak Hills Elementary School in Ventura County implemented a zero-waste policy, which decreased its waste by 90 percent. Additionally, Ventura County's Integrated Waste Management Division promotes zero-waste lunch by offering workshops at school sites to explain the cost benefits and provide training to successfully implement a zero-waste program.
  • Waste Free Lunches--Information regarding how to implement or participate in a waste-free lunch program. This site includes sample letters to parents and teachers, information on conducting trash audits, examples of salvaged/recycled art projects, composting basics, where to purchase waste-free lunch kits, success stories from across North America, and links to other waste-free lunch sites.

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Last updated: August 27, 2015
School Waste Reduction
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