Plastic, Steel, or Glass in Your Child’s School Lunch?



In the classroom, many students have water bottles plunked on their desks. All day, the kids sip at will, which is great! They are staying hydrated, and water is SOO much better than sugar laden juice boxes or teas and seltzers.

But unfortunately, most of these water bottles are made of plastic. Many are old bottled water bottles or sports drink bottles. As I think back on this past year, I noticed that only one student had a stainless steel water bottle on her desk.
Which one is more sustainable? And healthier and safer for kids to use? Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of plastic, stainless steel, and glass water bottles– especially for classroom use.

A Close Look at Reusable Water Bottle Choices for School

Plastic

Benefits:

  • can get knocked around so no breakage occurs
  • portable 
  • recyclable

Drawbacks:

  • leaches dangerous toxins into water
  • many bottles don’t get recycled– plastic currently makes up 13% of our solid waste 
  • can hold (and breed) bacteria if reused without cleaning properly
  • can melt or give off toxins in dishwasher 
  • plastic taste in water
  • can breakdown and leach more chemicals into drinks
  • bottles are derived from petroleum, a non-renewable source
  • many plastics end up in landfill, as waste, or in our oceans and waterways

Stainless Steel

Benefits:

  • 100% recyclable
  • super durable
  • doesn’t leach toxins
  • last a lifetime
  • wide mouth for better cleaning
  • safer use for kids, all around for the pool, camps, school, etc. 

Drawbacks:

  • energy intensive to manufacture (but last forever!)
  • can be a bit heavy for backpacks and desk use
Glass

Benefits:

  • recyclable
  • doesn’t leach toxic chemicals

Drawbacks:

  • breaks easily (see below!) which can be dangerous in school settings
  • may or may not last years, depending on use
  • not allowed in many areas: pools, schools, theatres, community centers
  • has a similar carbon footprint to making PET plastic water bottles
  • many do not get recycled (glass bottles have a low 33% recycling rate)

Dangers of Plastics for Children:

Toxins:

I worry about the toxins in plastics that my students are exposed to in regular water bottles. Plastic water bottles can contain PVC (or vinyl) which is a poison plastic-– its unhealthy for children and schools. According to Healthy Child, Healthy World, it is toxic to workers, communities, and to consumers:

“PVC also creates and releases dioxins, which cause a wide range of health effects including cancer, birth defects, diabetes, learning and developmental delays, endometriosis, and immune system abnormalities. One type of dioxin is the most potent carcinogen ever tested. It’s nasty stuff.”

Water bottles can also contain BPA, or bisphenol A, which is an endocrine disrupter. This chemical mimics hormones in the body and has been linked in animal studies to obesity, early puberty, reproductive system problems, cancers, heart disease, and learning disabilities. That is a mighty long and disturbing list. I want to protect my students and children from these types of health problems and conditions! BPA-Free does NOT mean it’s safe since no one knows what they are using instead of BPA. BPS (the replacement) has been found to be just as harmful.

Contamination:

I’m also concerned about the bacteria in reusing old single use bottles. I see how pre-adolescent students are— they don’t take home the bottles to wash them– for weeks on end! Just think about the breeding population of bacteria in old plastic bottles. Ick.

And I am right to be concerned! It’s more about cleaning and hygiene, especially with smaller necked bottles. According to SF Gate:

“In 2003 the University of Calgary conducted a study of 75 plastic water bottles from an elementary school classroom. The bacteria levels were so high in the bottles that, had the water been from the tap, a boil-water order would have been issued. However, the study concluded that the high bacteria levels were more associated with poor hygiene practices than with the plastic bottles themselves. Bacteria grow naturally in moist, warm environments, and virtually any container can provide the right circumstances for bacterial growth. The shape of plastic water bottles is a factor in the promotion of bacteria, as the narrow mouths of the bottles make them difficult to clean. Containers designed for reuse have wider mouths that facilitate cleaning.”

If they are washed, plastics can melt or weaken in the hot water of the dishwasher– spreading toxins to other dishes and making the leaching of chemicals more likely. I try to avoid washing any plastics in the dishwasher at all.

So what do I recommend for school children?


Personally, I have a trusty Klean Kanteen stainless steel bottle that I use each day, as I have for years. This company is honest, committed to the environment, and guarantees their bottles for life. You can find more info on what goes into making their products on their website. Their wide mouth design is perfect for washing, and their food grade 18/8 stainless steel is self-healing. That’s right! The finish for their bottles is chromium and it has a property to heal if the bottle gets minor scratches! Perfect for kids!

Considering this, and other benefits and drawbacks of each, stainless steel is a great choice for school children. Students aren’t exposed to harmful chemicals when using stainless steel as they would be if they used plastic. And is safer for school use than glass, because of the possibility of breakage (see below!)

I’ve used glass bottles before, and I broke one dramatically at my school (rushing from one meeting to another). It was not fun stopping student traffic in the hallway and tracking down all the shards of glass. Imagine; glass under the computers, glass under the media cart, glass down the hall… It was a mess and could happen to kids as well.

In the lunchroom, kids bring lunches in many ways. Some still use the regular brown bag, others branded lunch boxes with characters parading across, and others with cloth sacks. I still see many ziplock bags which get thrown away each day. And recyclables are often lost in the shuffle– even with reminders from my Earth Hero team about where the bins are. The kids are excited to talk and are urged to clean up quickly and efficiently. This can lead to throwing too many recyclables away! We are working on improving this.

I recommend parents buy Klean Kanteen’s toxin free lunch boxes free of PVC, phthalates, and plastics. There are many great options now. And their stainless steel water bottles are great for backpacks, desktops, and after school sports. These durable little bottles will last the wear and tear of even the wildest of kids.

Here is an informative (and surprising) infographic on the differences in sustainability between stainless steel, glass and plastic from ecokaren.com!

What reusable containers and water-bottles do you send with your kids to camp and school?

This post is sponsored by Klean Kanteen and Green Sisterhood

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 7 Healthy School Snacks: Apple Sauce Recipe - Good Girl Gone Green - June 16, 2015

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  2. Plastic, Steel, or Glass in Your Child’s School Lunch? - Good Habits MarketGood Habits Market - August 24, 2016

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