We seriously got fed-up with plastic school lunch boxes getting cracked and the zips of material options breaking within months. Lunch boxes can go through a serious amount of trauma at lunchtimes. It was time to look further than the supermarket for the perfect sustainable lunch box.
(This article has been updated since it was written in July 2015.)
- Large enough to handle a sandwich-sized container and a couple of much smaller containers to carry snacks in.
- Ethically/sustainably made
- Preferably insulated
- Not plastic
We looked at three models: PlanetBox stainless steel, Keep Leaf cotton insulated cooler bag, and 4myearth neoprene lunch bag.
Stainless steel lunchbox
Coming in three different sizes, the PlanetBox takes the metal box to the next level. They might be more complicated than what you need but if you’re after a box that compartmentalises food, it’s a good option. They come with cooler carry bags made from recycled PVA and the larger models come with dip containers. These do add to the material mass, compounding the issue that they’re made from non-renewable resources.
PlanetBoxes are made in China and is owned by 3rd Stone Design. A representative from the US company says they have a third party that verifies labour conditions in factories are fair and safe and that children under 14 are not employed. The company’s CEO visits the facilities three times a year.
Price: $62 – $90. The most common complaint from owners about these boxes is the price. The quirky luxury accessories like magnets would bump the price a little.
Availability: Available online planetbox.com
Functionality: With no zips and seams they are very durable. If your child is prone to treating their lunchbox like a football these might not be for you. PlanetBox is popular amongst members of a healthy lunchbox Facebook group because it makes it easy to pack a diverse range of foods.
There is a similar and simpler product by Lunchbots called Bento Cinco. It’s $41 and comes in different sizes. It doesn’t have hinges or latches so there’s less to break. One of the models has three compartments and fits whole sandwiches but some feedback suggests it won’t fit wraps.
Insulated cooler bags
It was challenging tracking down these products. While there are lots of variations of this type of lunch box on the market, we’ve included this brand because of their sustainability ethos – they use organic cotton and ethical manufacture.
Keep Leaf also has variations of this material – a lunch bag, lunch box and the cooler bags. The lunch box has Velcro but the Australian distributor says some shoppers returned them after the velcro stopped sticking and the bag isn’t available in Australia yet but might be come the start of a new school year in 2016.
The bags have a certified organic cotton (like GOTS) exterior and insulated lining. They have a mesh pocket to hold an icepack. Like each of the products here it’s free from PVC, BPA and phthalate. These can fit two stacked sandwich containers, snacks and a water bottle. 22.8 x 19 x 15.2cm.
The designs are okay but tend to revert to predictable gender-orientated patterns and colours.
Keep Leaf is a Canadian brand and the products are made in India. The factory employed by Keep Leaf is a member of the Ethical Trade Initiative – this is a member group not a certification organisation. By joining, members commit to improving work conditions aligned with an Ethical Trade Initiative Base Code; they are not audited and are required to submit reports annually.
Some Facebook communities say the seams in textile lunch bags gets mouldy. This has rarely been a problem for Sustainable Shopper as long as the bag is clean each day and kept in an open space. It might be more of an issue if your lunches leak.
Availability: Not great. There are online and in store options. It might be easier to contact the Australian distributor naturallysustainable.com.au or go to keepleaf.com/store-locator/.
Functionality: For size and shape we preferred the lunch box design for its flatter shape; however being textile this model can squash into bags just as well.
Neoprene lunch bags
This company used to manufacture a product similar to Green Leaf’s lunch box using cotton but they have replaced the cotton with neoprene – the wetsuit material. The product is 80% rubber and 20% polyester cloth. The adhesives are water-based, not formaldehyde.
The Insulated Neoprene Lunch bags are insulated and free from PVC, BPA and phthalate. They have an internal pocket and are 21 x 26 x 10 cm. The cotton versions were made in India; however the neoprene is made in China and is $5 more expensive.
4myearth owner Rebecca Hurst says she shifted manufacture to China because she couldn’t source neoprene in India. She changed from cotton to neoprene because she felt the cotton didn’t last long enough – she has a neoprene version that is six years old; however she’s still looking for a cotton bag she is happy with.
Rebecca says she has worked hard to find a sustainable manufacturer with ethical environmental and labour conditions: “When I source out a manufacturer I ask for certificates and evidence. These cover work and labour as well as certificates for tested fabrics that I use.”
We like that we can put foods containing liquids into small stainless steel, leak-proof containers and they fit in the one lunchbox.
The new designs offer more basic colour options, with no prints but they include gender-neutral options.
Availability: Neoprene bags are replacing the cotton ones so you might find a bit of both on the market place when you search 4myearth.
Functionality: We were very impressed with the cotton version of this product. One of our eight year olds has had his for two years and despite showing wear and tear it’s in great shape. While we can’t vouch for the longevity of the neoprene version our experience is that this company makes things that are built to last. The neoprene fits everything we need – a sandwich or other large container for food plus a couple of smaller containers for snacks. It appears slightly larger than the cotton version, but that might just be the stretchiness of the material. If you’ve been in and out of wetsuits you might also be familiar with the smell of neoprene, which becomes less obvious after a few washes.
Fortunately there are so many sustainable lunch box options available now. Let us know if you have found a durable favourite that you’d recommend. We would love to know about Australian manufacturers too!