Greening the Brown Paper Bag

Greening the Brown Paper Bag

Actually, it’s hard to do. The pleated brown paper bag, essence of all that has been lunch for the past seven decades or more, is already pretty darn green. The paper part is biodegradable, and the machines that make the bag rectangular, pleated, and foldable/stackable were invented in 1890 by African American inventor William Purvis, in a time when electricity was very expensive and far from ordinary.

Granted, the bag is designed to be thrown away rather than recycled. Or reused, like the ubiquitous metal lunch pail of earlier generations, but at least it isn’t made of plastic compounds like bisphenol, or BPA, an endocrine disruptor that alters the fertility cycles of both males and females. As does phthalate (contained in PVC plastics), which has some of the same effects as BPA.

Green your lunch

Unfortunately, much of this – from the bags and bottles to the food itself – is thrown away without ever having been touched or tasted. Experts estimate that the more than 10 million students in U.S. schools discard an astonishing $183 per year just in disposable packaging. The value of the food is inestimable, and would make mothers in developing nations weep.

Fortunately, since the turn of the century many people have become aware of sustainability (using only as much as needed, and leaving enough so that future generations can live at the same level of comfort and prosperity). This has led many to practice it to a greater or lesser extent – and sometimes only as a feel-good measure. But what’s wrong with feeling good about oneself, and how does it make the act any less beneficial?

Knowing what we know now about toxic plastics, including styrofoam, many of us have also gone in for green lunch packaging, or – at the very least – started washing and recycling our zip-top plastic bags, either by hand or in the dishwasher using specially designed washers.

One solution would be glass, which has been serving and saving food for centuries, but who wants to send a glass container to school with a nine-year-old? That’s an accident waiting for a place to happen.

Second best is all-stainless steel, locking, air-tight containers. And the best news about this in recent years is a new development in the manufacture of stainless steel that makes it much more effective at destroying bacteria than it was previously.

The best antibacterial bet would be copper, of course. Copper is up to 90 percent effective against most common bacteria, but now so prohibitively expensive that most copper containers are decorative rather than utilitarian. For example, a four-piece real copper (not copper-coated aluminum) canister set costs at least $50 and often as much as $75.

Copper has also been made obsolete by the appearance of plastic, which is easier to shape than copper and – being fairly cheap (since most plastics are synthesized from petroleum) – more profitable to the manufacturer.

How can we, as parents, balance our budget against the need to provide our children wholesome, healthy lunches? We can start packing food in stainless steel or PLA (bio-based; corn) plastic. Granted, stainless is more expensive than PLA plastic, but it’s not something even your youngest scatterbrain would unthinkingly throw away after lunch.

We can replace environmentally unsound, rigid plastic lunchboxes with personalized organic cotton bags and make a fashion statement only your junior high school daughter really “gets.” (And she will love you for this gesture; at least for the next hour or so).

Buy compostable, bioplastic knives, forks and spoons, and even drinking straws. As more and more people choose these totally green options, and the technology catches up, manufacturers will lower their prices. This is perhaps why an iPhone doesn’t cost more than $1,000.

More important, good but nourishing lunches keep food out of the waste stream. Of course there will always be one or two items kids won’t eat, but if you can get your offspring to bring their lunch bags home, you can even compost that, generating more “food” for next year’s vegetable garden.

The most effective way to get your loved ones to eat their lunches is to have them pack it themselves. Set up an extra half hour in the evening to make packing lunch into a challenge – which one has the most nutrition, or the least calories, etc. (you might have to incentivize this with cash). The caveat being that, when they return from school the next day with leftovers, they forfeit their prize, whether it is money or a relaxed curfew on Saturday night.

Being a parent is just as hard as being a CEO, and the pay is considerably less. If it weren’t for the fact that you love them to distraction – at least most of the time – you would put them out on the corner with a sign around their necks and a bus ticket to New Jersey!


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