Solid Waste & Recycling


Waste-Free Lunch

The Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) with support from grocery chain Metro Ontario and Tetra Pak Canada introduced the Waste-Free Lunch Challenge (WFLC) — an environmental education program that ran concurrently with Waste Reduction...

The Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) with support from grocery chain Metro Ontario and Tetra Pak Canada introduced the Waste-Free Lunch Challenge (WFLC) — an environmental education program that ran concurrently with Waste Reduction Week (October 17-21, 2011). The program challenges elementary schools across the province to reduce the garbage they generate during the lunch hour and educates students, staff and parents about effective waste minimization strategies. Lunch waste represents a major source of waste in Ontario; the average elementary-school student generates 30 kilograms of lunch waste per school year.

Participating classes or schools conduct a pre-challenge audit to determine how much waste their class or school is producing at mealtime. During the week-long challenge, the students attempt to bring lunches that contain no waste by using food containers that are reusable or recyclable and consider proper portion sizes to prevent food waste. Students measure their success by conducting daily audits of the lunch materials produced in three categories: compostable, recyclable and waste.

The program helps to integrate the process and results directly into the school curriculum.

This year’s program has been expanded to allow all Ontario elementary students to participate in the challenge. This will be the third Waste-Free Lunch Challenge; the program was run in 2007 and 2010. In previous years, over 50,000 Ontario students participated in the WFLC. In 2010, nearly 700 schools from 57 school boards across the province participated in the challenge. The RCO is pleased with the results of the 2010 Challenge. Ontario students successfully prevented roughly 50 tonnes of waste, equivalent to seven full municipal garbage trucks, from going to landfill. (The average municipal garbage truck holds seven tonnes of waste; 50 tonnes is the approximate weight of 10 large African elephants!)

In 2010 twenty classrooms were recognized as the most successful at reducing the amount of waste generated and received $1,000 prizes donated by Metro Ontario for use in school-based environmental projects. All registered students received a reusable aluminum water bottle in recognition for their efforts.

Student participation in the auditing process and daily audits throughout the week provide a visual learning tool that promotes self-reflection. Students can see how their own behaviour and decisions have an impact on the environment. This challenge promotes youth empowerment by demonstrating how students can support conservation. Students enjoyed the challenge, and were inspired to continue to promote waste reduction. Many students wanted to continue to conduct waste-free lunch challenges throughout the school year. For some, this was the first time that they’d expressed an interest in helping their parents prepare their own lunches. Teachers found that daily audits reinforced this process by allowing the classroom or school to accurately measure improvements.

The Waste-Free Lunch Challenge is an excellent educational tool. The program is primarily focused on environmental and waste issues, but the challenge can be applied to many school subject areas. For example, a teacher can incorporate the WFLC into a math lesson that discusses measurement conversions or percentages. The WFLC can be used for an art class, where student create posters that remind other school students how to properly dispose of their waste. There are a number of possible lessons that can be incorporated into class curriculum depending on the particular age group. Resource are always available on the Waste-Free Lunch Challenge site to support further waste minimization education. The formal challenge is run with Waste Reduction Week, but RCO encourages teachers to promote waste-free lunches all year long. For more information about the 2011 challenge, please visit

Catherine Leighton is Program Manager for the RCO’s Waste-Free Lunch Challenge. Contact Catherine at

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