Bondi Public School are on a journey to rid their school canteen of plastics.

The Bondi Public School canteen provides between 200 to 450 lunch orders every day, providing fresh, nutritious food, aligned to the ethos of their Stephanie Alexander food garden. When Canteen Manager Kai Tando first started at the school, the amount of waste generated each day really shocked her. This month Kai shares Bondi Public’s inspiring journey to eliminate plastic waste from the canteen and supporting sustainable habits along the way.

Canteen manager Kai with cutlery library on counter

What motivated the school to eliminate plastic waste from the canteen?

I grew up in Japan where all public schools have an onsite commercial kitchen and a nutritionist to provide a monthly seasonal menu for the students. The students would take turns to collect the lunch for the class from the kitchen and then serve a hot meal on reusable plates and bowls in their classroom.  So, when I started working at the school canteen in 2021, I was really shocked to see how much rubbish we were creating each day! There was no recyclable or reusable packaging or containers, and cutlery was single use. Since day one at Bondi Public, I set a goal to reduce single use plastics and packaging from the canteen as much as possible.

What were the first steps you took to reduce plastic?

First, we switched all our plastic and bio-plastic (PLA) cups over to home compostable and non-tree paper cups and lids, supplied by I Am Not Paper. We use compostable cups for drinks, homemade ice blocks, fruits salad and yogurt.  A small number of these cups get composted at school by the Planeteers, our student green team, who cut them into smaller pieces before composting. To dispose of the remainder, we use the Simply Cups program. We have a collection point at school that can accept all non-reusable cups and a teacher drops them to the Kensington collection point at Seven Eleven once a month.

We also swapped the disposable plates for compostable, sugarcane containers. These are used for the popular snack box of boiled egg, corn chips, veggie sticks, fruit and cheese. They go into our school compost bins or into the general waste bin.

Next, we stopped providing any type of disposable cutlery and straws and instead asked students and staff to bring in their own cutlery. For students who forget, we have set up a cutlery library, where they can loan and sign out cutlery and return it to the canteen. All the cutlery is donated by families and Bondi locals. The students are generally good at bringing the borrowed cutlery back and we love seeing how proud they are to remember.

We have also reduced the different types of containers we need in the canteen.  The menu is designed so that we now only need cups, bowls, snack boxes and paper bags. By eliminating disposable cutlery and simplifying the packaging, we are not only reducing the plastic waste, we are also saving money.

7/11 cup recycling station and a tray of colorful iceblocks decorated with native flowers

What other initiatives help you reduce plastic waste?

We are also working to reduce waste along the supply chain. We contacted all suppliers and asked for minimal packaging. We choose a small family-run fruit and vegetable supplier, so we can communicate our philosophy easily, and request that the fruit and veg come unwrapped whenever possible.

We’ve also swapped baking paper for silicon baking mats where we can, and we use silicon food covers or lids instead of plastic cling film.

The school is part of the Wonder Bread Recycling Earn and Play Program. Wonder Bread collect our used bread bags and send them to their partner APR Composites, located in South Australia, who recycle the soft plastic with saw dust from a timber mill, to make into a ‘wood plastic composite’ which acts as alternative to timber, producing products including boardwalks, sidewalks and signage.

You’ve done so much…. What’s next?

We will soon be getting a commercial dishwasher and eventually hope to purchase reusable plates, bowls and cups – to be completely single use free.

A challenge will be finding the right reusable cups - inexpensive, non-plastic, a lid for easy transport, streamline and stackable to minimise storage space and easy for the kids’ small hands.

We are on the hunt for plastic free sushi packaging. We have around 300 sushi orders each week which still come on a plastic tray and individually wrapped. I have spoken to our suppliers, but currently the alternatives are too expensive.

Printed sticky labels from the online ordering system are plastic backed - so finding an alternative option for this is also in our sites.

What advice would you give to other school canteens who want to reduce plastic?

Any school can do it! None of the changes we made are radical and they save money too! Start by switching, or removing, just one item, then build from that. High impact options to start with are:

  • Switch from individual sauces to a sauce station in large bottles on the counter
  • Stop selling bottled water – have reusable bottles people can borrow if they forget their water bottle.
  • Ask your suppliers to provide plastic free options – food unwrapped or placed in a paper bag if necessary.

Even small changes can have a large impact, such as using seasonal flowers and herbs from the school garden instead of balloons and plastic decoration for birthday treats.

Developing a good partnership with the school is crucial to making any changes, as without their support, it will be very hard to implement your ideas. As we are part of the education system it’s important that as well as providing nutritious food, we help set up healthy and sustainable habits. A school canteen is ideally placed to influence these habits across the community.

Contact Kai if you would like to join the conversation of plastic free school canteens through an online chat.