Free your school from the grip of the single-use waste monster!

Help your school reduce lunchtime waste by starting a Trash Free Lunch program. Teach and encourage students to reduce waste by packing food and drinks brought from home in reusable containers instead of single-use plastics in addition to bringing reusable utensils and cloth napkins. Reducing your lunchtime waste goes a long way in creating a more sustainable school campus.

Toolkit Details


This toolkit address the following Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) within the Performance Expectations of NGSS for Grades: K-2 and 3-5

  • 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

Why is it 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.

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 and vegetables and foods in bulk instead of prepackaged foods, families can save money and cut down on unhealthy, highly processed foods in their diet.

Teacher Project Plan Step-by-Step

Step 1: Determine Participants

Use our Trash Free Lunch Sign-Up Sheet Template to assemble your team!

  • Working with a small group of students? Hold a single day Trash Free Lunch event
  • Working with a larger team? Build a campaign around going Trash Free one day a week (ex. Trash Free Tuesdays)
  • Is your whole school involved? Strive to have the school be Trash Free every day

Step 2: Set Learning Objectives


  • Students will analyze school lunches to determine whether or not they are Trash Free
    • Examples
      • Count the number of pieces of trash found in students’ brought lunches
      • Determine which pieces of packaging are single-use versus reusable

Project Management

  • Students will identify routines
    • Examples
    • Students will practice leadership skills by delegating tasks to each other

Evaluation and Assessment

  • Students will track and evaluate the impact of their project
    • Examples
      • Audit peer lunches periodically to evaluate the impact of Trash Free education
      • Count number of Trash Free Lunches and increases in reusable containers among peers 
      • Report the impact of their work to the school/city/community

Step 3: Educate Students on the Environmental Impact of Trash Free Lunches

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

Education Materials: Can Your Lunch Help Save the Planet?

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.

Why Litter a Social 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 the communities that live nearby.

Step 4: Pre-Activity Reflection Questions

Reflection and Educator Observation Questions

Use the following questions to guide students and reflect on what they’ve learned. Provided questions can be accessed in slideshow or worksheet format.

Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Educator Observation

  • What answers did you hear from the reflection questions?

Step 5: Take Action – Trash Free Lunch Lesson Plan

Lead students in “Trash Free Lunch” activity with guided instructions. Check out “Pro Tips” for more useful help:

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.

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.

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.

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.

5. Educate Your Parents

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.

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.

Purchase a fun stamp and non-toxic ink pad to stamp student’s hands who are packing Trash Free items, or make and hand out “Trash Free That’s Me” cards to give to students who are making an effort.

7. Report Your Success

Be sure to let the school know how they did and the progress they are making to reduce their waste by making announcements about the increase in Trash Free Lunches and reusable containers.

Make it a contest and see which grade or class can bring the most Trash Free Lunches on a given day. Reward the winners with a popsicle party or shout-outs during school announcements. Make sure rewards are Trash Free!

Step 6: Post-Activity Reflection Questions

Student Reflection and Real World Application Questions

Student Reflection

Ask students these questions, once your team has implemented Trash Free Lunch on campus and performed at least one Post Audit.

  • What changes did you see in student’s food packing habits after educating about Trash Free Lunches? 
    • Example: We are seeing more students bringing their sandwiches in reusable containers instead of plastic baggies
  • What single-use items do you still see the most of?
    • Example: We still see a lot of students bringing single serving chip bags
  • What are some ways you can think of to reduce more waste during lunch? 
    • Example: We can sell reusable bottles in the school store

Real World Application

What will change in your life now that you have completed this project?

Step 7: Report Students’ Impact

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

Provided Resources