Outside the Box: An Interview with ECOlunchbox Founder Sandra Harris - Public Goods Blog Outside the Box: An Interview with ECOlunchbox Founder Sandra Harris - Public Goods Blog

Outside the Box: An Interview with ECOlunchbox Founder Sandra Harris

The Public Goods Blog is about health, sustainability and people making an impact.

sandra farris, head shot

That’s why we seek out and interview amazing people who can share incredible stories or valuable insights. Their wisdom might be the inspiration you need to live a healthier, more sustainable life.

Prior to establishing ECOlunchbox, Sandra Harris developed a unique set of skills as an investigative journalist and humanitarian aid worker through various outlets. She was a Fulbright Professional Journalism Scholar, part of a program of the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in Barcelona, Spain. Then she continued her studies at Ohio State University where she earned a master’s degree as a Kiplinger Fellow in investigative journalism.

Harris had a proclivity for uncovering the truth and informing the public. Her writing appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Asbury Park Press, the Associated Press and the United Press International. While volunteering as a humanitarian aid worker in Vietnam, Harris — along with the East Meets West Foundation (now Thrive Networks) — collaborated on projects such as water and sanitation, infant and maternal health, micro loans and the assembly of schools and libraries.

It was during this work, in the early 2000s, when Harris learned that plastics and their estrogenic-mimicking chemicals were much more toxic to people and the environment than anyone was aware of. She did not want her children coming into contact with plastic.

“I decided that tools were needed to help people overcome their dependence on this harmful material,” Harris said. “Just like a carpenter needs a hammer and a plumber needs a wrench, plastic pollution activists need tools to help them live their lives with less plastic.”

ECOlunchbox is a sustainable lunchware manufacturer that is revolutionizing the way consumers pack their meals on the go. With a wide range of stainless steel products, bamboo utensils, glass straws and silicone lids, ECOlunchbox eliminates plastic waste, contributes to a greener planet, promotes portion control and helps save money. By investing in these reusable, stainless steel lunch boxes, consumers can forget the need to ever buy plastic or brown paper bags and can find comfort in knowing harmful toxins will never leach into their food again.

At ECOlunchbox, Sandra Harris and her team track the impact of their products annually in a study called an SROI, or a sustainable return on investment. They also brought in students from San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School who helped to devise an approach to measure the amount of waste ECOlunchbox products prevent on a yearly basis, then convert that data into an estimate of the carbon dioxide equivalent offset through waste-free lunchware sales.

“It adds up to tens of millions of pieces of plastic that are being diverted from use and disposal by people who have purchased our lunch boxes and are pressing them into use at school, work, and out having fun adventures in nature,” Harris explained.

Harris has been garnering praise with ECOlunchbox, including a review in Martha Stewart Living and Forbes Magazine. In the latter she was named the “Mompreneur who has sold 300,000 reusable lunch boxes.” Wanting to know more about her journey with the company as well as her opinions on sustainability, we decided to connect with her.

Public Goods: What does sustainability mean to you?

Sandra Harris: To me sustainability means having a system that can go around and around in a healthy way indefinitely. If we’re using up our resources without replenishing, we will run out. If we are trashing our planet by throwing away single-use items and otherwise mismanaging our waste, we will end up living on a planet filled with our trash.

A water bottle made out of bamboo, for example, comes from nature and can be put back into nature and decomposed. That’s around-and-around sustainable design, I think! And this kind of water bottle, which in my lifetime was made by Hmong people in Northern Vietnam, needs to exist again! It’s a reusable item with a limited lifespan on earth in its current form. Basically, you don’t have to worry that it will clog up our oceans and poison our marine life. Because it’s made from organic matter, it will simply disintegrate at end of life.

I’m a huge lover of hiking, kayaking and so many activities on land and sea. I really want future generations to have the same access to Mother Nature’s treasures as I have, so I’m endeavoring to use my business to show a way to do good through the sale of consumer products.

I’m really excited to continue to add products to our line that keep in mind the lifespan of each item from the time they’re born, which includes the selection of materials to use that are healthy for people and the planet, as well as during their use and then plan for what will happen to each product at end of life. I would love to put to market a highly functional lunchbox made from something like bamboo that could be born of the Earth, used joyfully by people everywhere, and then returned to the Earth. That would be so awesome!

PG: What advice do you have for consumers who want to include more practices of sustainability in their lives?

SH: I recommend thinking big but starting tiny. It can get overwhelming to try to overhaul one’s lifestyle so they live more greenly. Instead, I recommend taking small bites. For example, we think starting with overhauling one’s take out habits is an easy and low-hanging fruit opportunity to reduce plastic waste.

While it may seem expensive at first to have to replace everyday products that you have relied on for years, keep in mind that purchasing reusable items, such as stainless steel Bento boxes, ends up actually saving money. We did a study looking at the cost of packing lunch using disposable containers and utensils as well as pre-packaged foods, like dry snacks, juice boxes, yogurts in little tubs, and so on. When you do the math, it’s a huge saver for families to buy reusable lunch containers, utensils, napkins and other zero-waste living tools and press them into use again and again and again. Now that’s sustainable to a tune of hundreds of dollars saved annually for families.

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