How would you react if your kid's school announced it was 'zero waste'?

packed lunch food
Public Domain Pixabay

It turns out that some parents are less than thrilled.

A parent complained bitterly on Reddit last week that her son's school is now 'zero waste.' In order to save money on the trash service, school administrators have taken away the trash cans – a move that outraged this parent, who feels her child is being denied basic services. She wrote,

"They are not composting nor are they recycling, they are just denying the children access to the trash can. All their lunch refuse must go home with them in their lunch box. They can throw away half eaten yogurts, apple cores, and banana peels only. Everything else stays in the lunch box to come home."

The parent points out that she can use a free trash can everywhere she goes, so why can't her kid? She worries about the unhygienic mixing of food and waste: "Many days we have activities after school and an extra snack. It seems gross to put trash and used napkins in with your food for later."

Reactions were swift and fiery, with 333 people commenting on the thread that is now closed. Some sided with the original poster, saying they'd tell their kids to throw the trash on the floor if trash cans weren't provided. Most, however, challenged the parent's perspective, telling her that this isn't a bad thing and recounting their own experiences of schools and day camps that have been zero waste for years.

One advised, "[Get some] Tupperware... I have a lovely lunch bag and then pack small tubs of hummus and bread sticks, cut fruits, pasta salads etc and then use a beeswax washable/reuseable bag for sandwiches."

Another said, "I'm genuinely baffled. Why is this an issue? My kid's school is zero waste. Always has been. They bring their lunch waste home. It's never been a thing. If anything, it makes me a bit more mindful of how school lunches are packed... We spent about $12 on the initial setup so it's not cost prohibitive. That $12 has lasted YEARS."

My children's school has always told us to pack waste-free lunches, although trash cans are still available. I do think, though, that their presence is a crutch of sorts. Until we are truly forced to contend with the waste generated by our shopping habits, we won't be inclined to change them.

By forcing kids to take their trash home, the school is not creating a real problem for kids and parents, just an inconvenience, because they all have trash cans at home. It's an enforced delay, a moment of reckoning, that could prove to be eye-opening.

One commenter put it well: "I think the policy is great because it makes people face the amount of garbage and food waste they are producing, rather than just putting that on the school."

It sounds like the school could do a better job at implementing the new program, perhaps following the lead of an Australian girls' school that recently eliminated trash cans from its campus. In that case, the school's sustainability team consulted with students and parents for six months before launching the project. A trash audit revealed that, in 2018, the school produced 954 cubic meters of landfill, which cost $13,000 to remove. These concrete numbers helped to justify the move and support for it was strong.

Zero waste is both trendy and important, but it does need to be introduced with care, so as not to alienate people, like this parent. Children are wonderfully amenable to change, especially if it's turned into a game; and they have a strong sense of social and environmental justice, so once explained, they'll do a good job of converting their parents to the cause. But the movement does need to start from the bottom, perhaps within individual classrooms at first, before being thrust upon tired, overworked parents.

How would you react if your kid's school announced it was 'zero waste'?
It turns out that some parents are less than thrilled.

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