Back to School: 1974 vs. 2010

BlogHer Original Post

Sometimes I find myself bemoaning the plastic world we’ve created and wishing we could go back to a time before our disposable culture got the better of us. It's a simplistic point of view for sure, as I realized last night while reminiscing about my experience growing up in the 70's. No bottled water. Fewer disposables. But were things really better back then or just different?

Back to School on a Budget

Beth Terry elementary school photoIn 1974, way, way, way back in the day, "Back to School" meant I finally got new clothes. Each year I'd fantasize about finally having a wardrobe that would make me popular. It never happened. Designer jeans? Forget it. My mom didn’t let me wear pants to school until I was in 5th grade. And invariably, my new duds would start out two sizes too big (to grow into) and be two sizes too small before I could have new ones. “No, I’m not preparing for a flood, you guys. Leave me alone.”

My younger sisters had it much worse. They never got new clothes as long as my hand-me-downs were still wearable -- “wearable” being a very subjective term. These days, I appreciate my mom’s thrift, and of course I recognize how much easier it is on our wallets and on the planet to reuse what we already have before buying new stuff.

Shopping for school clothes in 2010 can be just as green. Nicole at Thrift Store Confidential provides useful tips for shopping second-hand stores for kids' school clothes instead of going the retail route. And Eco-Women Protectors of the Planet advocate swapping instead of shopping.

1974: All About the Vinyl

While I might not have lucked out in the clothing department, I did, however, score a brand new Dawn Doll lunch box one year, complete with matching Dawn Doll Thermos (plastic on the outside, glass on the inside!) The lunchbox was covered inside and out in shiny white vinyl, the same material Dawn herself was made from. Now, sitting here at my desk at 1 am, I can still recall the smell and plasticky taste of my tuna sandwich after sitting in that lunchbox all morning. But I didn’t mind. It had the same smell as my dolls and all the other toys I loved back then.

Dawn doll lunch box and Thermos

In 2010, we understand the dangers of PVC, aka vinyl. Yet still, so many children’s toys, clothes, and school supplies (such as lunchboxes, 3-ring binders, backpacks & school bags, etc.) are made from it. Fortunately, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) puts out an annual Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies, so vinyl is easily avoidable.

Download the 2010 guide here.

2010: All About the Styrofoam

Not as easy to avoid these days is styrofoam. While I might have carried a toxic vinyl lunchbox most days in 1974, I did get to choose one hot cafeteria lunch per week (tater tots!), a lunch that was served on reusable plastic plates, with metal utensils, and durable plastic trays that the school washed and reused. Yeah, they were plastic, but at least we didn’t throw them away. What we did throw away were paper napkins, paper (yes, paper) straws, and cardboard milk cartons. Isn’t that enough waste?

Recently, I was shocked to learn that in the years since I was a kid, many schools have switched to throwaway styrofoam trays and disposable plastic utensils. (Thankfully, the ‘tots have remained the same.)

But parents, teachers, and kids are fighting back against styrofoam.

Portland, OR: Enviromom Renee Limon participated in a styrofoam lunch tray recycling challenge. She and a group of caring parents got together and handwashed tray after tray so that they could be recycled. Her conclusion? All that washing of styrofoam to be recycled is not sustainable. What is needed are durable trays and a high efficiency dishwasher.

Takoma Park, MD: That’s exactly what a student group at Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland are fighting for. For over a year, the Young Activist Club has been campaigning for durable lunch trays and the installation of a tray washer. The Club has raised over $10,000 towards the project and consulted with a design consultant to find out the exact cost of the project. In June of this year, the Takoma Park Mayor and City Council passed a resolution to ban use of city funds to purchase polystyrene food service ware. Nevertheless, despite all their efforts and support, the county school district refuses to consider switching to reusables, insisting that the project will cost more than the club estimates.

New York City, NY: The Styrofoam Out of Schools campaign has succeeded in instituting Trayless Tuesdays. On those days, all 1,500 NYC schools will serve lunch on recyclable paper instead of styrofoam. It’s a small step, to be sure. But sometimes baby steps are what is needed. Unfortunately, NYC does not have any composting program, so compostable trays are not an option. The campaign is pushing for reusable trays in schools that already have washers and recyclable cardboard trays in schools that do not.

(And if there’s any doubt in your mind that styrofoam is not good for you, check out this question posted to Yahoo! Answers by someone clearly affected by it. Stop laughing. It’s not funny.)

Solution: Bring Your Own!

One solution to the styrofoam/vinyl/plastic problem is to send kids to school with their own reusable plastic-free lunch containers and utensils. Not only do you control the amount of plastic but also the quality of the food itself. Here are some of my favorite plastic-free lunch container options:

More and more stainless steel, glass, and cloth options are becoming available these days. There’s no longer any reason to send kids to school with lunches packed in plastic.

Disclosure: While Life Without Plastic is one of the sponsors of my blog, Fake Plastic Fish, the company provided no compensation for or influence over the content of this post.

Other Related Posts

Big Green Purse: Students Start Food Fight So They Can Have Re-usable Lunch Trays.

This Green Life: NY School Children Protest Styrofoam – Be Inspired

The Soft Landing: Top 5 Reasons Your School Should Go PVC-Free

Citizen Green: Keep the Poison Plastic Out of Your Child’s School Supplies

Beth Terry
Live Life with Less Plastic!
Twitter: @fakeplasticfish
Facebook: FakePlasticFish

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