Open thread: Waste

With Earth Day having just passed, waste is an appropriate topic. I’m talking about food waste AND plastic and paper waste. It’s hard to see kids throw away parts of their school lunches. Sometimes it’s things they haven’t touched because there isn’t time to eat it and they just don’t like it. Not only is it a total waste of money, but there are people in our community who experience hunger and who could eat that food.

And then we’re throwing away so much plastic (sporks included) and paper. It’s mind-blowing when you consider how fast that adds up. And it’s all single use items that go straight into our landfills. What can we do?

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37 thoughts on “Open thread: Waste

  1. We need to go back to real forks and spoons. At the school my children attend, they receive their lunches on reusable purple plastic trays, but they still get the spork packet that includes a straw and napkin.

    They have a recycling program at their school for plastics (including the sporks), aluminum, and paper. The only thing they need to add at this point is compost. I'm hoping to bring it up at the next PTA meeting.

  2. In honor of Earth Day, our school just introduced real forks and spoons. No more sporks for us at lunch! The teacher who led the campaign went to the district and asked for the real silverware. She was told that the district had donated most of the silverware to local charities and wasn't aware that we wanted real silverware. Seriously? We'll be keeping 60,000 sporks a year out of landfills! We also compost all our food waste and use it in our school garden.

    We serve breakfast in each classroom every morning. The kids get individual cereal boxes and a milk and eat at their desks. I'm hoping to lead a campaign for real boxes of cereal, reusable bowls, and gallon jugs of milk to reduce our waste. The kids are still getting sporks at breakfast, so the next step is to have real spoons.

    I so appreciate what you are sdoing. I'm appalled by what your students are fed and the absence of real food. Let's hope this is the beginning of the end of these practices.

  3. wasn't it that guest blogger from Korea that said their schools serve food on reusable metal trays?

  4. The first time I came across your blog the thing that struck me was how everything came in its own throw-away package. Every student every day was throwing away that much garbage. I am lucky in that my child attends a private school with an environmental focus, they re-use everything that they can and food scraps are added to the compost pile. Most students at the school bring lunch from home, but there is hot lunch available. The students also maintain community gardens and help with the animals including the chickens from which they periodically gather and cook eggs. It is a small school and so I know that it is easier for them to implement many of these things than in a larger school but the opposite extreme of what I see on your blog of almost every item of food that you eat being accompanied by an item of trash is astounding.

  5. I had 3 instant revelations upon finding and reading this blog:

    1) Kids don't get recess anymore? And under 30 minutes for lunch? No wonder they're all ADHD! They are CHILDREN…they need to run and jump and play…sheesh!

    2) The food is absolute drek! In the 70s and 80s when I was in school, we had "disgusting" hot lunches, but they were real food at least. The nice lunch ladies in the hairnets did more than microwave…and they WERE nice!

    3) How much waste are we making with all of those single serve containers? Think of those industrial sized cans of things like baked beans. If you opened one of those, how many lunches could you make? Instead we opt for single serving dump fillers. And it's hard to just recycle because they are usually still full of food!

    What's wrong with plastic plates and bowls, real forks and spoons, and REAL food? Enough pumping kids full of high-fructose corn syrup that their little bodies can't process quickly enough (or sometimes even at all!) and then putting them in a desk and expecting them to learn. Our schools don't fail standardized testing because of poor teaching or dumb kids…they fail because the kids are antsy and can't concentrate and they are hungry!!! (in my opinion)

    And what's wrong with the big machines we had in college for ice cold milk. You get to grab a couple of glasses, head to the machines and fill up on icy cold milk that isn't in a plastic or cardboard container. It's real and it's white milk…not sugary chocolate or strawberry (though I'm not totally opposed to those options, but seriously, that was always for a treat not for every meal!)

    Mrs. Q…your blog has really caught me off guard. I spoke with my aunt who is a diabetes educator and dietician…and she's been up in arms about this since her kids (now in college) were in grade school. It's almost like we're creating a self-fulfilling destiny…feed kids crap and voila…you have unhealthy adults with lousy eating habits. Oh, and they are uneducated because they couldn't pay attention in school!


  6. This may not pertain to today's topic, but I had to throw it in somewhere. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again, but: What you are doing is extremely important. It's very interesting to note that the people questioning your "paranoia" and overall methods of blogging are, by and large, listed as "Anonymous." By including guest blogs and your own interesting intertwined essays, you have made a real complete study of the situation. I confess that I, too, wish to someday know who you are and hear your voice – ALL OVER THE TV AND INTERNET! But, until then, keep on doing good. There are more of us who support you 100% than there are ready to belittle your efforts. Good work, Mrs. Q. Makes me wish I was Mr. Q. I love intelligent women with a purpose.

  7. The school in our district(small town public school), I actually worked there a few years ago, uses plastic reusable trays and real silverware. Is that rare? I didn't realize schools used the kind of system your's does. Of course even the kids who bring their lunch end up w/ a lot of waste from all the prepackaged items they bring.

    BTW, just found this blog, my son will be in kindergarten next year so I quite interested in learning more about this topic. (of course I've already decided he won't be eating school lunch everyday :))

  8. You would think that the school would at least recycle what it could. It's not that hard to have sporks go here, food go here (compost), all the other garbage go here. It's not like the school would be asking the kids to do math problems before they can throw anything away. Although, I kinda like that idea.

  9. Unfortunately, food safety laws make it nigh unto impossible to get leftover food to hungry people. And since there's no leftovers back in the kitchen–like extra pots of soup–the kind of waste food your kids leave isn't donatable.

    So, aside from raising chickens, composting would be the best answer. (Even if the school's not able to start a composting program, maybe they could donate to, or initiate, a community composting program).

    So between using real utensils–which might help teach real-life skills & manners–and composting, that surely would go a long way.

    Does your cafeteria have any recycling bins available, or are there not enough recyclables involved in the food service there? (Juice containers, fruit cups, etc.)

  10. It doesn't help with those that eat school lunch, but we send a cloth napkin and utensils in my son's packed lunch.

    Maybe cloth napkins should be like backpacks – you need one to go to school. To help subsidize it the school could buy restaurant grade cloth napkins and everyone decorates theirs on the first day of school. After that, you're responsible for having it with you. No more paper napkins would be available. And for the kids that forget theirs they'll invariably use their shirt and their parents will remember after that. Even kindergartners can be taught self-care, and taking care of a napkin can be part of that.

    We trust them to use library books surely we can trust them with a real fork, spoon and knife.

  11. What inspirational people in the blogging world:)
    So amazed at how many of us truly care about the health and wellness of our future generations!! Makes me happy…now we all have to come together and make a difference-Mrs. Q, this is a start! As a health educator, I have said there needs to be MUCH more emphasis on healthy eating and exercise in the school systems, hopefully as you draw attention to this issue, the change will come?!

  12. Contrary to what everyone is saying, I don't think compost would work. For one thing, where would they PUT it? If there was a big pile in the cafeteria for kids to dump their trays on, wouldn't that be kind of… icky? And wouldn't it start to smell? I'm in middle school right now, so I would be one of the people affected by this compost. It's not a good idea. Unless you think the school board should hire people to fish through the trash cans in the afternoon.

  13. Due to your blog, and others I've been following lately, I received permissions to track how much food is served in our school (grades 3 – 6, with over 300 lunches served daily.) I tracked it for 3 days, and2 of the 3 days over 50% of the food served was tossed. My next survey is to find out which of the foods are ignored the most. I did notice this week that mandarin oranges were rarely touched. The canned peas and carrots were almost totally ignored. We still use reusable beige plastic trays, but only use spoons, so children don't injure each other with forks!!!

  14. we do 'laptop lunches' reusable lunchbox. i have friends that even do glass straws..but my kiddo is a sensory kid- he'd chomp that thing in half! I know that isn't an idea for school lunches…but there are lots of options for lunchboxes.

  15. i think there should be real spoons, forks, and knives…or titanium sporks would work too i guess. someone else mentioned cloth napkins and i agree that would be good. recycling too. if the kids are taught what can and cannot be recycled in class and then there are reminders by the recycling bins, that could be a big help in reducing what goes to the land fill. also composting could be good especially if there is a school garden.

  16. Frankly, I think the time allowed for lunch & recess is one of the biggest factors in food waste at our school. My son will stop eating, even if hungry, as soon as the class lines up to go to recess because he doesn't want to miss any of the fun on the playground. If they weren't trying to wolf down all their food and get recess into such a short time, I think a lot of kids would eat better (also if the food tasted better because it was less processed!).

    My kids bring lunch from home every day and we ask them to bring everything home. That way we can see how much/what they ate for the day. We package everything in reusable containers with metal forks/spoons (and cloth napkin) so everything gets washed at home. Uneaten food that is still safe (a muffin or whole apple, for example) can be used for after school snack. Scraps of partially eaten food can be composted.

    If your school has a kitchen, by all means, push your school board for non-disposable dishes and utensils! We don't have the facilities to install the commercial dishwasher which would be required. We have investigated other options, like compostable trays, but right now the cost and local economy make it something of a pipe dream.

    Our local college has instituted a composting program, eliminated all trays in the cafeteria (saving water and reducing food waste from people taking more food than they can eat), and replaced styrofoam "to go" containers with washable plastic containers. So obviously, these things are doable if you have the institutional will to get them done.

  17. We don't even have reusable trays. The schools in our district use either styrofoam or paper trays that are thrown away daily. More than 1000 disposable trays thrown away every day when you consider lunch AND breakfast together. And that's just at my school of 800 – there are 90,000+ kids in my district

    Louisville, KY

  18. @Casey Griffin-

    You wouldn't actually have the composting pile in the cafeteria. We've got one in the backyard at my school – it's a couple 4×4 squares fenced in by chicken wire/old fencing.

    You'd just need the kids to sort out their stuff in the lunchroom while throwing it away. One can for compostables, one for everything else (well, hopefully a third for recyclables). We were able to do the same when I was in elementary, so – with training – middle schoolers could handle it. (FYI: we weren't actually composting when I was in elementary. The food waste was picked by a pig farmer for use as slop.)

  19. CASEY: Good to hear from actual students. Concerning composting, there would be some slight changes in your lunchroom procedure. You would need to separate plastics and paper from actual garbage. That's all. Two cans. So it wouldn't be a compost pile building up in the lunchroom – just another can of garbage. As for space, composting can be done in surprisingly little space. It's a good thing. I'm an old guy and I'm trusting people like you to fix what we've done to this planet. Composting is a great place to start.

  20. I think schools should use a program that a camp I have gone to uses. After meals all the food waste goes into a tub to be composted, and they weigh it, when they get record low amounts they give a special treat out, they always make a big deal about "ort" they also use real plates and silverware.

  21. The cool thing is that I go to the first eco-friendly school in my state!!! Although it doesn't seem like it, there are little ways that make a big difference in my school.

  22. I used to go to a school that used real silverware & trays. It isn't that difficult. Restaurants do it. They just had a place to return them at the end of the day. And they didn't even always have to hire dishwashers. They had student volunteers who would help out in the middle school.

    Honestly there is no excuse for plastic silverware.

    At the high school I now attend, we don't even have sporks or individual plastic utensils. One napkin, a paper package of salt and pepper, a knife, a spoon, and a fork are all plasticwrapped together. So if you only need a fork that's a HUGE waste.

  23. I work at a public middle school with over 800 students. Our cafeteria switched to reusable, sectioned, plastic trays, and metal flatware last year. It took only a few days of teaching the kids to dump the trash, but not the trays or flatware. I love the idea of composting though, and think it could fit into both our 6th adn 7th grade science curricula. They already share a garden where the compost material could be used after it was processed. I will try to get the idea to the attention of our administration.

  24. The county I teach in JUST switched from plastic reusable trays to styrofoam this year! I was shocked when I realized that in the fall. Some colleagues and I threw a fit but there's nothing that can be done–last summer they turned the dishwashing room into a walk-in freezer in all the school kitchens (to hold all of the frozen processed food!). The man in charge of our Food Services department claims it was cheaper to pay for disposable trays than to pay for the hot water and labor to wash the plastic trays. I would love to see the numbers comparing last year's bills to this year's bills…

  25. I have been reading your blog for a while and I was so surprised to see what school lunches look like now.

    Yeah, I thought the food was pretty gross in elementary school (70's & 80's), but at least it was freshly made and not pre-portioned and pre-packaged. We also used real silverware. Sometimes it ended up in the trash, but then so some retainers.

    The kid's food at your school looks a lot like airline food. Not great. I am starting to think that we are the last generation that had easy access to "real" food and not pre-made, pre-packaged junk.

    I'm really glad that you are doing this blog. I really enjoy reading it.

    Our city just passed a law requiring composting. We thought it would be stinky, but actually it's not – even after a few days. It has also drastically reduced the amount of trash we throw away. Prior to composting we were using 1 13 gallon bag a day. Since we started composting a few weeks ago, we are using 1 13 gallon trash bag every few days for trash.

    It's a pretty amazing difference and I have to say, it feels pretty good to know we are reducing the amount of stuff that goes into our landfills.

  26. I agree with a previous commenter…especially elementary schools would have a lot less food waste if the kids had a little bit longer lunch time. 20 minutes in my child's school includes the holding all your recess gear (which in winter is a lot), dropping it at your assigned table, then going to stand in line for hot lunch (which can be long), hopefully you didn't forget your milk or utensils or you have to get back in line if the lunch supervisors will even let you, and then you have maybe 10 minutes left. I realize elem kids don't focus while eating…they want to talk since they're supposed to have been paying attention all morning, so some might think allowing more time would just mean more messing around with the same amount of eating. If you did first 15 minutes silent and then allow talking?? I think someone suggested that in an earlier post comment. Anyway, my daughter is frequently asking to bring lunch from home instead of getting the free lunch so she can have more time to eat her food (since she wouldn't have to stand in line). She throws about half her hot lunches away because they're being shewed out the door to recess.

  27. Waste is a problem at my school as well. As of now we use disposable, but compostable plates and sporks. Next year we will be in a LEED certified building and we will be back to our reusable trays and silverware.

    Our Main concern of waste is with food. The kids may choose not to eat fresh steamed broccoli or an apple, but does it mean it shouldn't ever appear on their plate? If the kids only got what they wanted the majority would end up with nothing but pizza, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese on their plates. I really think exposure to good fruits and veggies is important…even if it gets thrown away the first 15 times.

    That is where composting comes in. 🙂

  28. I agree with using real silverware and dishes. I worked for Aramark at the local university for 2 1/2 years and we got rid of styrofoam to-go boxes and also got rid of the trays. Getting rid of trays also reduces the amount of waste, since instead of taking three plates of food the students can only take one or two plates at a time. Not to mention the savings on water, soap and labor to wash all those trays!

    In addition we need to adopt more thermal depolymerization plants. Europe is kicking our butt on adopting this important technology, and while it's not a perfect solution, at least it turns plastics into a reusable product, oil. In addition food scraps and solid waste can also produce oil.

    Here's a wikipedia link for those of you that haven't heard of thermal depolymerization:

  29. Reusable dishes, etc. would be wonderful. I know some schools don't have the facilities to do that, though. But there are plenty of more sustainable options than styrofoam trays. Paper is biodegradable. There are also "plastic" containers/silverware that are made from corn and are 100% biodegradable. They'd probably be more expensive than styrofoam, but cheaper than reusables. They could even be used in compost – if all the containers were biodegradable plastic, no sorting would be required. Everything goes to the compost heap. And done at a district level, where all the schools send compost to a central location (like with trash now), there'd be the potential to generate a lot of compost. A large district, or a collaboration of districts, could conceivably set up a program to compost the waste into fertilizer and sell it to offset the costs of the containers.

  30. All the schools I grew up in used plastic trays and metal utensils — like others, I am continually shocked at how much packaging is on or around the food you post every day. I don't understand how that much packaging makes any sense!

    Trays & silverware were washed each day and used again the next. I went to some pretty huge schools too, so I know this is doable.

    I also think that composting isn't a bad idea. For the person above who said it would be icky & smelly, composting/food waste bins are not icky nor are they smelly, if enough "fiber" (like paper towels, cardboard, etc), which is necessary to add to bins anyway, is thrown on top to cover it.

  31. I'm baffled at the disappearnace of reusable trays and real "silver"ware. I worked at a camp that fed 500+ girls and the cleanup process was a cinch with just 2 counselors. Everything was rinsed quickly with a hose and then loaded into a steaming machine- it did not take that much extra time at all. Most schools have more than that, but also more lunch ladies.

    Growing up every school had a kitchen- with the advent of trucked in processed foods from a central location- do they just not have this ability anymore?

  32. As a food service director of a school with 8200 students, it really is cheaper to buy styrofoam trays…much cheaper. It is the sad truth. At my district (I started in January of this year), we are working on getting real trays and real silverware back. The goal is to have parent volunteers and/or students wash them. We are also working towards recess before lunch, but that is a whole different topic.

  33. I like the whole "composting" idea (I think you may have touched on this earlier, I'm not sure). My friend's family has a little garbage can that they put their compost in, which then gets put in the big compost bin. Almost anything can go into compost-fruit, meat, even paper- and so it's a get way to save energy. I also agree with what other people are saying about real spoons and forks and trays that aren't styrofoam. They say using plastic and styrofoam saves cost, but think about it. If you buy, say, 500 metal forks and 500 metal spoons, in the long run you will end up spending less money because the forks and spoons are reuseable. Same goes for the trays. I remember when I was in elementary school, we had real spoons and forks until about 4th or 5th grade. I was so disappointed! Even back then I was thinking about the environment.

  34. Interesting blog. I eat lunch with my kindergartener a couple of times a month. First thing that alarmed me was the menu has some oppurtunities, second they don't make the kids take everything on their plates, third there is a choice called grab n go (cheese sandwich, baked chips, snack cake), fourth they don't eat at all they talk.

    So I pack my son's lunch once a week. I tell him he has to take the vegetables when he eats schoool lunch. He is not allowed to get grab and go.
    He eats all his food (he does that anyway). When I'm there his friends around me eat all their food. I even have tasting contests with them. Oh yeah the other one is no teachers/assistants in the cafeteria. When I went to lunch was part of the school day and we learned and tried new things.

    The school does use reusable trays and the adults get real utensils!

  35. – they have great waste free lunch kits – stainless steel containers, cloth saks, sandwich wraps, cloth napkins- and my son throws nothing away so no food goes to waste. He brings leftovers home to eat later or for the dogs 🙂

  36. I am wondering if anyone has suggestions about how to get some of the leftover food to go out of the cafeteria with the kids. I too have been struck by how much food goes into the trash. In speaking with kids during lunch, they are interested in taking it but not sure how to go about doing so. The last time I went there were lots of fresh orange wedges, kiwi halve and unopened bags of chips tossed into the dupmster. Isn't there a feasible way to get this food into their backpacks for later in the day?

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