Every school cafeteria across the country is unique: different kitchens, different systems and different  regulations. The one constant is that school cafeterias generate a lot of waste. If you’ve ever sat down to lunch with your school-aged kiddo, you have seen the amount of unwanted food and packaging that gets dumped into the garbage bins — especially single-use plastic items. In fact, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, “half of all garbage in schools is generated during two hours — lunchtime.”

Stop to think about what that means.

My daughter’s elementary school has 600 students. They have a breakfast program as well as a lunch program, which means there are probably at least 1,500 cartons of milk distributed every week. If these cartons aren’t being recycled, all that recyclable material is being thrown into our local landfill. That’s 54,000 cartons of milk each school year, and that’s just one item from one school.

Milk cartons really add up in school cafeterias. Photo: Adobe Stock

Here are some ideas for you to chew on as you take a bite out of waste at your school cafeteria.

What Can Your School Do?

One of the biggest challenges (aside from food waste) for school cafeterias is how to reduce plastic waste. To that end, if they don’t already, your school should start recycling in the lunchroom. This requires a team to plan, implement and maintain the recycling program. The team should include the cafeteria staff, custodian staff, at least one teacher, students and parent volunteers. Depending upon how your school is structured, having a representative from your district office will ensure that all regulations are followed.

Your school can also eliminate any single-use plastic items that aren’t needed. An item that immediately comes to mind is plastic straws. They aren’t necessary (in most cases), so they don’t require a replacement — without them, your school immediately saves money and reduces plastic waste.

Find a representative at the district level who can advise your school site about how items in plastic packaging can be replaced with more-sustainable items.

It’s also smart to have a school representative apply for a grant. There are many organizations that provide grant assistance for school recycling programs. The funds could help cover the cost of recycling bins, fees and promotional materials (such as recycling flyers and brochures).

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can pack lunches in reusable lunchboxes or bags. Also, use flatware, reusable bottles and containers, and cloth napkins. Avoid single-use plastics when packing lunch or sending snacks with your student.

To find more ideas for packing a waste-free lunch, check out 7 Strategies for a Zero-Waste Lunch.

Parents can also voice their concerns during parent/teacher association (PTA) meetings. It’s possible there are other parents who are troubled by the amount of waste being generated in your school’s cafeteria. Making your concerns heard is the first step in making real change at your school. There are plenty of PTAs across the country that have funded recycling bins and organized parent volunteers. My experience has shown that having a teacher or school administrator in charge of the recycling program ensures that it will continue even after parents move on to a different school.

Single-use plastic trays can be eliminated. Photo: Adobe Stock

Here’s a great tip from the Virginia Recycling Association:

“Sustaining a recycling program can be a challenge in some schools, especially those with transient populations. One way to ensure the continuation of the recycling program is to create a recycling notebook or scrapbook of all your local contacts, participating staff members, grants or in-kind donations received along with the organization it was received from, and a general history of your recycling program (events, activities, competitions, etc.). When key people in your recycling program leave, this notebook will provide important information for others to use.”

Helpful Resources

Waste in the cafeteria may seem inevitable, but with a little work, you can change that.

By Wendy Gabriel

Wendy Gabriel is a freelance eco-writer based in California. Wendy's work has been featured in numerous publications and websites, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fox Business News and Mashable.com. For nearly six years, she was a weekly contributor on a popular radio talk show in the Upper Midwest with a segment titled “Simple Tips for Green Living.”