A glimpse inside a break room garbage can at work likely reveals an astonishing amount of waste from snacks and lunches. In fact, nearly half of the solid waste stream is comprised of packaging and paper goods, according to As You Sow, and food packaging is a primary culprit.

Zero-waste lunches are both a good way to save natural resources and money. Follow these tips, and you will be well on your way toward lunchtime waste reduction.

1. Pack a Lunch from Home for Work or School

One of the best ways to achieve significant waste reduction is by packing a lunch for yourself and your kids. This is because you have greater freedom over what you eat and how it is packaged. Bringing a lunch from home is also a helpful way to have more control of the quality of your food, ideally using organic and locally sourced ingredients (and fewer processed snacks).

2. Use Reusable Food Containers

Although individual portions of food products are convenient, avoid buying them — they contain more packaging and are more expensive. If possible, shop the bulk section of your grocery store and frequent your farmers market (hauling home your finds in your own containers and cloth bags). Otherwise, buy larger quantities of food and portion it out in smaller, reusable packages.

Use reusable containers and bags for sandwiches, soups, yogurt, salads and entrees. To avoid a messy situation, store liquids in leak-free containers such as mason jars.

3. Source Locally Produced Foods

How far does the food at the supermarket travel from farm to fork? The truth is that we rarely have enough information to accurately estimate. Some foods are transported hundreds or even thousands of miles across the globe to arrive in our lunchboxes.

To save energy and to support local farmers, source as much food from local farms as possible. Frequent your farmers market, join a CSA farm, start a backyard garden and look for locally grown foods at the grocery store. This strategy will likely entail sourcing seasonal foods and discovering new recipes and storage techniques.

4. Make Your Own Snacks and Condiments

Back in the old days, people made virtually everything themselves from scratch. Energy bars, nut milks, smoothies, hummus and salad dressings are easy to make, often reducing packaging. This is especially true if you buy the ingredients in bulk.

5. Prevent Food Waste

A zero-waste lunch also means preventing wasted food. Pack realistic quantities, especially if you cannot refrigerate perishable items. You can always pack less-perishable snack foods such as nuts or an apple to round out a meal.

Take inventory of your fridge before packing lunches to keep food out of the landfill or compost bin. Keep your refrigerator organized so you can see everything and ideally use it before it expires. Packing leftovers from home for lunch is a great way to cut food waste.

6. Avoid Getting Carryout Food with Excessive Packaging

I’ve had meals to go from restaurants that resulted in throwing out a small heap of Styrofoam containers. Sandwiches can be a lower-waste lunch option, as they often come wrapped in just a piece of paper. If possible, skip the disposable silverware, bag and napkins by using your own reusable ones, and forgo the condiment packets if you won’t use them. Keep in mind that some food packaging is recyclable if you remove the food waste.

7. Find a Recycling and Compost Bin

Unfortunately, many people work in offices without recycling programs. If you can’t find somewhere to recycle food packaging, rinse it and bring it home if necessary. Then take the next step and try to start a recycling program at your workplace — the more convenient it is to recycle, the more others will participate as well.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.