The Eco Friendly Lunchbox, Lunch Bag & More Back to School Tips

by Jan 16, 2019

It’s that time of the year when we start thinking ‘back to school’ again and equipping our kids with school bags, lunch boxes and water bottles. So if you are wondering whether or not you are making the best choices for your child, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll tell you what I use or recommend and why I use it. Making better choices is not just about environmental sustainability but also about your health. Make a few tweaks to what you are currently doing and your child’s health will only benefit.

Why is it important to make better eco choices for our children?

Our kids start school as young as three years of age these days. Their bodies don’t mature for many years. When it comes to toxic load, their little bodies just can’t deal with toxicants as efficiently or effectively as we can. You may have heard the saying “children are not little adults”. Their detoxification systems (kidneys, liver, lungs) just aren’t fully developed, yet they are exposed to the very same level of toxicants as we are. They need a break. 

Thankfully there are some quick and easy ways you can reduce their toxic burden that will add up to a lot over time.

Lunchboxes and water bottles

Now you may think you have it sorted already: you’re buying BPA-free plastic lunch boxes or stainless steel water bottles. Not so quick because there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye. 

First up, plastic water bottles and lunchboxes. The problem? Apart from the fact that plastic lasts forever and is made from a non-renewable resource, all plastics leach. Sure, some are less toxic than others but some are just downright awful!

Polycarbonate, identifiable as plastic resin #7 (the recycling number on the bottom of your container) is particularly problematic. It usually contains BPA (BisPhenol A) the well-known hormone disruptor. Meaning it works just like your own hormones at tiny doses mimicking, altering or blocking them. Numerous studies show it can mimic oestrogen, potentially harming the brain and reproductive development in foetuses, infants and children.

But watch out! Clever manufacturers frequently just replace the BPA with another member of the Bisphenol family such as BPS or BPF so they can still be advertised BPA-free! These substitutions have been shown to be just as bad if not worse than BPA when ingested.

If you pick up a plastic water bottle and it tells you it’s BPA-free but doesn’t actually tell you what it IS made of, put it back. Truly ethical companies will always be transparent and will tell you what their products are made from. Don’t support those who choose to hide behind vague labelling.

With plastic, there are also some new kids on the block that you need to watch out for. Many of these dodgy plastics tend to fall under the #7 recycling code. Tritan, for example, is found in some popular lunchboxes. In some laboratory scenarios, it has been shown that just like BPA it has oestrogenic leaching capability. Where there is still debate around this, take the precautionary approach and avoid it until proven innocent.

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The only safe plastics are numbers 2, 4 and 5. If you use them never ever heat them up and never use them to store fatty or acidic foods (spaghetti bolognese) which will increase their capacity to leach dangerous substances. It’s also worth noting that whilst plastic #7 often contains problematic plastics, not all of them are. Yet it’s much easier to save on the decision fatigue and avoid them altogether.

An even easier option is to totally avoid plastic. Stainless steel is most practicable. There are lots of stainless steel lunchbox and water bottle options. The downside is they tend to be a bit heavier but lighter stainless steel water bottles (such as Cheeki) are becoming more and more common.

Stainless steel, given its strength and durability, is also a lot more expensive than plastic so make sure it’s all clearly labelled with your child’s name and make sure you label the lids. I use small stainless steel food containers such as those from Ever Eco – which come with plastic lids. The plastic lids are safe as they don’t come in contact with the food but make sure you label them also. My kids have a habit of losing them.

Another way you can trip up is by buying what you think is a stainless steel bottle but in fact, it is aluminium. Aluminium bottles are much lighter and they are usually lined with plastic which can contain BPA or the like. For the reasons outlined above, avoid them.

Something that’s not well known is that some stainless steel and aluminium water bottles can contain lead. Thankfully, the lead is not found inside the bottles touching the contents but it is often found either in the decorative painting on the outside of the bottle or in a circular dot on the bottom of the bottle. 

Lead is a highly toxic heavy metal that should not be found in any part of a bottle. Children still touch the outside of the bottle and even though the lead on the bottom is concealed with a circular seal it can be removed. The Klean Canteen brand has been tested lead-free. For more detail on specific lead-free brands check out Tamara Rubin’s website.

If you use a bottle with a sippy straw try to make sure it too is made from silicone, not plastic.

Another issue with straws is that food tends to get trapped on the underside of the lid, which is a breeding ground for mould which isn’t easily removed. To avoid this issue as my kids have got a bit older I’ve moved them onto sports-top bottles and we now mostly use the Klean Canteen and the Cheeki brands.

The same goes for lunchboxes: avoid plastic. We use stainless steel, reusable cotton canvas wraps and beeswax wraps. Beeswax wraps are brilliant at keeping your sandwich intact and super fresh. Check out @wolraps online for stockists in Perth. Whilst stainless steel lunchboxes are heavy, cotton wraps and beeswax wraps will save a lot of space and reduce the school bag load.

I also try to buy the largest, most practical, water bottle. Schools do no filter their water and lead amongst other toxicants is a common contaminant. Fill it up and discourage your child from drinking from the water fountain after the holidays or weekends when lead concentrations will be high, as I discuss in this blog about lead exposure.

School Bags

School bags are often another problem. Many school bags are made from highly toxic plastic PVC.

Vinyl chloride is the main component of PVC. It is a known carcinogen and its production generates highly toxic dioxins which persist in the environment and the food chain.

Phthalates are generally added to plasticise the PVC rendering it soft and rubbery. Phthalates, again, are hormone disruptors that mimic oestrogen and have been linked to birth defects, infertility and reproductive changes in children.

Heavy metals are then added to stabilise the plastic which can include lead, cadmium and chromium.

PVC and children should never go together.

Cotton canvas school bags are my preference but it can be hard to find in pretty colours that children like. ‘So Young’ is a brand you should check out.

If your school provides school bags get onto them to ensure they are PVC-free. Similarly, if you have the option of buying a school bag for your child look for cotton canvas or at the very least a non-toxic plastic such as nylon or polyester. PVC is really common in schoolbags, recognisable by that new shiny look, so always check the label. PVC also smells yuck. 

You will find lots of good brands including those mentioned above on my Pinterest site


On a final note, one of my bugbears is the extraordinary amount of stationary children are asked to take to school. Twenty pencils, seriously? I mean when was the last time someone wore down a pencil? I save half the stationary they are asked to provide, and we then use it the following year. But if you have leftover bits of stationary and you don’t know what to do with it, check out Terracycle who recycle stationary or get your school to buy one of their recycling boxes.

For help with detoxing your home from nasty chemicals, take a look at my services here.

This blog post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy one of the products I recommend through a link here, I earn a tiny commission. I only recommend products that I, myself, use. I will never recommend to you something that I haven’t tried and tested! Please feel free to send me a message if you want to know more about any of the products I share on the blog.

Hi, I’m Una. Eco-Lifestyle Coach & Scientist

Una Phelan environmental scientist and eco-lifestyle coach

I create healthy homes and lifestyles that change lives for the better.

When you need straightforward, simple information, I will give it to you. I can cut through the science to give you practical tips for taking charge of your health, your home and workplace.

This means it’s easier for you to get on the right track to an econscious lifestyle.

Whether it’s online or in person, I’ll guide you every step of the way.

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