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Ask an Expert - Alternative to Plastic Zipper Bags

School Lunches
 
School Lunches
My daughter recently started school, and we pack daily lunches and snacks to send with her. Is there a reusable alternative to pack her food in besides plastic zipper bags?

Sara Sunderlin, M.S., Senior Lecturer, Department of Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management, NDSU

Each year, Americans use billions of different types of plastic bags. Many of those are plastic sandwich or snack-sized
bags used to pack and transport lunches and snacks for children and adults. Most of them are tossed in the trash when
lunchtime is done. Schools across the country are adopting environmentally friendly policies to reduce the amount of
waste thrown out each day by school-age children.

You have several other alternatives to consider. One is to use a plastic-type container with a removable lid that can be
washed over and over. Another option is to use a fabric bag or sandwich wrap. The design of these bags is similar to a
plastic zipper bag. Most of them close with Velcro or they fold over to keep the food in its place inside the bag.

A quick online search will give you dozens of options for purchasing reusable fabric lunch bags. They are readily available
at stores such as Target and The Container Store. Also, several online sites provide free tutorials so you can sew these
bags for yourself.

The fabric bags seem like an awesome, washable and reusable option to replace those plastic bags, but you must
consider some issues:

  • Food-safe fabric – Not all fabrics are considered food safe, even for short-term storage. Manufactured fibers are made from chemicals or petroleum components and often are not considered food safe unless treated with a special finish. Many bags use a plastic-coated, laminated fabric. The plastic should not come in contact with the food unless the fabric is clearly labeled as being food safe. Another alternative is to use two layers of organic cotton fabric. Organic fibers are grown and processed without using chemicals, pesticides and insecticides. A fabric called Eco-PUL also may be an option. This two-fabric structure held together with a “green adhesive” binds polyester knit with a TPU (thermosplastic polyurethane), providing a water resistant fabric.
  • Food dries out – Most fabrics allow moisture and air to pass through them. This characteristic becomes a problem with food storage. Fabric bags are best used as a short-term solution. A sandwich packed in a double-layer organic cotton wrap will be fine if packed in the morning and eaten at lunchtime, but it will be dried out if saved in the refrigerator until the following day.
  • Fabric doesn’t absorb all of the moisture from the food – Dry snacks, such as cereal, dried fruits and nuts, work well in fabric bags. Fresh fruit and moist snacks would be better off in a washable/reusable plastic-type container.
  • Washing – The bags do need to be washed often. Some foods may leave a smell or taste on the fabric that will transfer to the next item stored in the bag if the bag isn’t washed in between uses.
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