Cheese String Wrappers Do Not Good Nesting Material Make…

By Giuliana Casimirri

I’m an ecologist but I’m not much of a birder. When I was working on my undergraduate degree, I had a summer job that involved monitoring the nests of Herring Gulls and Caspian Terns in Hamilton Harbour. I had to wear a rain suit and a hard helmet because the Gulls, in order to defend their nests, would fire a stream of vomit at me, and the Terns would dive bomb me. That’s why I’ve always preferred trees and plants.

Tree Swallows on Nesting Box.

Tree Swallows on Nesting Box.

But I have this friend who loves birds, and her kids are friends with my kids and you know how it goes…we often wind up going to the Royal Botanical Gardens to feed the Chickadees, or to Ruthven Park to watch the bird banding, or to LaSalle Marina to see the Trumpeter Swans and recently, to monitor a set of 50 nesting boxes for Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. So now I call myself a ‘reluctant birder’ because when you spend a good part of your time teaching your children about birds, you can’t help but to start appreciating them yourself.

I don’t know if any of you were at the Ancaster Farmers Market last Spring when a mamma Blue Jay was alarming visitors with her screeching as her baby had somehow wrapped it’s foot around some plastic produce mesh and was hanging upside down from the nest. Despite the nestling’s screams, the Mamma continued to feed her upside down baby. Hours
later, a nearby landowner used his ladder to access the nest to disentangle the bird. Turns out the mesh had been used as nesting material.

While monitoring the nesting boxes, we’ve also noticed that the Tree Swallows are using plastic straw wrappers from drinking boxes and the packaging from cheese strings for their nest building. When I was thinking about how to approach the topic of litter-less lunches my mind went immediately to these Mamma birds.

Plastic used as nesting material.

Plastic used as nesting material.

I believe that promoting a litter-less lunch is not really about convincing people that reducing litter is important. We all likely agree with this. Rather, fostering and maintaining a commitment to a litter-less lunch (and by association a plastic-free life) requires ‘feeling’ something for the natural word. When you see the true impact of plastic packaging a ‘switch’ is turned on and the ‘effort’ and ‘inconvenience’ of a litter-less lunch is no longer perceived as such.

I’ve been packing (mostly) litter-less snacks and lunches for a few years. I figure I’m at about 1500 lunches. I thought I was doing okay, with the odd pre-packaged fruit bar or yogurt. However, seeing drinking box straw wrappers and cheese string wrappers in the nests of neo-tropical migrants will likely be the ‘switch’ for me, the ‘last straw’, if you will. Whatever plastic-wrapped food is in my home will be used up but we aren’t buying any more.

Below I’ve listed a couple of tips that should be useful whether you’re a litter-less lunch convert, or just dabbling.

1. Get the right containers and label them.
It helps to have containers that are leak-proof, easy to open and durable. I use those with lockable tabs on the sides and I have two sets in various sizes. I bought a set three years ago and labeled them and they are still all intact and matched with their lids. Plastic baggies, even if you intend to wash and reuse them, just don’t hold up. There are also lots of cloth, stainless steel or even bamboo alternatives to plastic containers. I also use silicone muffin cups as handy separators inside my larger containers. This way you can put two items into one container, such as cheese and crackers, without having the items touch and ‘soggify’ each other (my kid’s word not mine).

2. Make it yourself.
I make snack-size granola bars, muffins and dried fruit snacks in batches and freeze the extra. It’s hands-down healthier, it’s a family activity and it’s cheaper. Here’s a link to my go-to granola bar recipe, and an easy banana muffin recipe. The adolescent students’ delicious dried apple rings at the Fall fundraising event inspired us to buy our own dehydrator and make pear and peach versions.

3. Buy it in a big container and put it in a small container.
Resist buying lunch-sized plastic or tetra-pack containers for things like applesauce, cheese, juice, crackers, yogurt, and hummus. If it can’t be made at home (like applesauce, hummus or juice), it can be bought in a larger plastic container or wrapper and doled out into a reusable lunch container. You can adjust the portion size to suit your child and there is less food wasted, healthier food consumed and the larger container is reused or recycled properly at home.

4. Rethink nutrition, the structure of a ‘lunch’ and what your kids will eat.
It might help to try to think of a lunch as something other than a sandwich, a fruit/veggie, a drink and a baked good. Sometimes my kid’s lunches consist entirely of cut up fruit, veggies, a healthy muffin and a smoothie made at home. It doesn’t look like much but I figure it’s more nutritionally dense than ‘something’ between two pieces of bread and a prepared snack food like crackers or bars. Leftovers, bean or grain salads, soups or even oatmeal in a thermos are also good alternatives.

Happy lunch making and happy spring! If you are still on the fence, you might find inspiration from this video describing one woman’s efforts to go plastic-free:

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