Reduce the amount of waste in landfills by making your lunch trash free!

Help your school reduce lunchtime waste by starting a Trash Free Lunch program. Participants will reduce waste by packing food and drinks brought from home in reusable containers instead of single use plastics and bring reusable utensils and cloth napkins. Reducing lunchtime waste goes a long way in creating a more sustainable school campus. By using this Trash Free Lunches Toolkit along with the Lunchtime Sorting Toolkit, your school will be a leader in reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Toolkit Details


This toolkit address the following Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) within the Performance Expectations of NGSS for Grades: 6-8 and 9-12

  • Asking Questions and Defining a Problem
  • Planning and Carrying out Investigations
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Obtaining Evaluating, and Communicating Information

What You Will Accomplish 

Trash Free Lunches reduce waste, save natural resources and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. Not only that, but by buying whole fruits,vegetables, and other foods in bulk–instead of prepackaged foods–families can save money and cut down on unhealthy, highly processed foods in their diet.

Why It’s Important

Excess single-use packaging and waste from school lunches deplete natural resources and fill up our landfills contributing to the planet’s mounting plastic pollution crisis.

Why Should You Reduce Your Waste During Lunch?

The resources provided can be shown as a slideshow or printed out as individual worksheets for students to learn.

Lunches Create a Lot of Waste

Whether you’re packing a full lunch for school, bringing a snack for recess or packing food to go somewhere on the weekends, choosing to pack Trash Free reduces waste, saves natural resources and saves money! According to the EPA, the average American student creates 67 pounds of lunch packaging waste each school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds of plastic, paper, and other non-food materials for just one average-sized elementary school (EcoCycle). [1]

Plastic Waste is Hard to Recycle

Most packaging is difficult to recycle because it is made with hard to recycle materials like plastics or is contaminated with leftover food. Of the 14.5 million tons of container and packaging plastics produced in the US yearly (EPA), less than 9% of it is actually recycled. Even when we put plastic in the recycle bin, most of it will still end up in a landfill. This plastic packaging is made from oil, a natural resource that requires energy to produce, which releases greenhouse gasses and causes climate change throughout its lifecycle. [2]

Choose to Go Trash-Free!

By making simple changes, like packing food and drinks in reusable containers and bringing reusable utensils/cloth napkins, you can reduce your waste and make your school and community more sustainable.

Watch these two short videos to learn why it’s important to reduce energy consumption!

Why Litter is an Environmental Justice Issue

Waste is often classified as an environmental justice issue due to the implications associated with where it is transported. Recycling facilities, waste transfer stations, incinerators, and landfills are all largely placed in developing regions internationally or in disenfranchised communities within the US. Any one or a combination of these facilities can cause widespread pollution in addition to health issues to communities that live nearby.

Let’s think about it…? 

  • What are the most common types of packaging you see in your lunch and the lunches of the students at your school?
  • What are some swaps you can make in your own lunch to use less packaging and make less waste?

How to Make Lunchtime Trash Free

Follow the steps below to set up a successful Trash Free Lunch Program at your school! Need help? Contact us!

Step 1: Assign Roles

  • Determine who and how many students/staff are participating. Use the Trash Free Lunch Sign Up Sheet.
  • Assign participants to educate peers, market the program throughout the school community and/or audit the results.

Step 2: Plan It Out

Determine the date that you want to kick off your Trash Free Lunch campaign and if you want to encourage students to go Trash Free one time, one day each week, or every day using the Trash Free Lunch Organizer.

Step 3: Audit Your School’s Lunches

  • Schedule a day before your Trash Free Lunch campaign to audit school lunches to get a baseline of how many students are packing Trash Free.
  • Print out the Trash Free Lunch Audit worksheet and head out to the lunch area with your team. Using tally marks, count the number of students at lunchtime who have brought a packed lunch to school. Out of those students, count how many students have completely Trash Free lunches, mostly Trash Free lunches and partially Trash Free lunches. A Trash Free Lunch is one in which all packed items can be eaten or reused (i.e. Lunch box, water bottle, snack and food containers, utensil, napkin) and there are no single-use items or packaging. Fruit and veggie scraps such as a banana peel or apple core should be counted as Trash Free! 
  • Record the data on the form and keep it somewhere you can access later to compare it to future audits that take place after your campaign.

If there are too many lunches to count, consider taking a large sample (about 100 students) and use what you’ve found to estimate the amounts for your whole school.

Step 4: Educate Your Classmates and School Staff

  • Teach your peers how and why to pack a Trash Free Lunch. Deliver the results of your audit and the Trash Free Lunch Script at a school assembly, over announcements or by going class to class. Feel free to use the Trash Free Lunch Peer Presentation template.
  • Spread the word about the program on campus by making posters and posting these flyers (How To Pack a Trash Free Lunch and Pack This Not That flyers) around school, on your school’s website or in an online school newsletter.
  • It’s important to never make a student feel bad about bringing waste-causing packaging to school. Even one item in a reusable container should be celebrated! Reward all improvements with praise.

Step 5: Educate Families

Teach the parents at your school how and why to pack Trash Free for their students by sending home this flyer in a school newsletter or posting it on the school’s website.

Step 6: Measure Your Impact

Using your Trash Free Lunch Audit worksheet, pick a date to audit your school’s lunches again.

  • If you are choosing a “single day” goal for your campus to be Trash Free, conduct your post audit on that day.
  • If you are choosing “one day a week” goal to be Trash Free, wait at least one week after your Campaign and conduct your audit on that day of the week.
  • If you are choosing to go Trash Free every day, you can audit the school lunches weekly or monthly to see how it’s going.

Step 7: Report Your Success

Compile all the data that your teams gathered and complete Trash Free Lunch Wrap Up Form.

How’d it go…? 

  • What were some small wins that happened during your project? 
  • What could you do to up your game next time?
  • What personal changes will you make to reduce your energy consumption?

Provided Resources