Our daughters are now in fifth and sixth grades, and every year we tinker with the bringing-lunch-to-school technology. This year, the whole family got involved with the reuse/recycle theme, and we're getting much closer to the perfect system.

We've been through two generations of the ubiquitous soft lunch boxes, but all the ones I've seen have an inherent problem. About halfway through the school year the liners, which start out impervious and eminently cleanable, crack. Food leaks from the containers and gets into the cracks, and it likes it in there. The milk and yogurt start partying with last week's pasta sauce, chicken soup, and bits of fruit and granola and, well, you get the idea. Eventually, no one will sit next to your kids at lunch, especially on a warm day.

So this year the girls are at a new school (where nobody will know they had smelly boxes) and we're at Staples getting supplies. And what do we find among the tools of elementary education? A new kind of lunch pail, as the union guys used to call them. They're made of neoprene, of all things. Now, this is the same stuff I wear for winter fishing, so I'm already thinking how cool this is. Along with scuba diving, fishing and duck hunting, lunch boxes are a perfect use for neoprene. It stretches, so a slightly too-big container can be made to fit. It cushions, so things inside are somewhat protected from bruising and denting (I got carried away and put heavy-duty glass containers inside and one came home in many small pieces from the first day of school, so beware). Neoprene also is a great insulator, perfect for food storage. The bags have great big plastic zippers, so everything stays inside. If we rip or tear them, they're easily repairable. And best of all, at the end of the first week, my wife put them in the clothes washer on the delicate cycle; no more cracking and smelling, and they dry in a day, hanging. Finally, given my experience with neoprene waders, these boxes will outlast and outperform the others we've used, so we won't be buying new ones as often.

So what about what goes in the box? Here again, we're trying some new containers, but from a company I've written about several times before. It's called Preserve (preserveproducts.com) and it's based in Waltham, Massachusetts, so it's sort of local. All of their products are made from recycled #5 plastic. They have a program called Gimme 5, which allows consumers to easily recycle things like yogurt containers, either by dropping them at collection boxes in Whole Foods Market stores or by sending them directly to the company. As I understand it, Whole Foods in Portland is a collection point for Gimme 5. But back to our new containers; we got round bowls in two sizes with tight screw-on lids so they don't leak, and square ones also in two sizes with really secure snap-on lids. They're 100% recycled plastic, top-rack dishwasher safe, BPA free, a cool apple green color, and made in the USA. And when you're done with it, send it back to Preserve and they'll recycle it. The box in which the stuff was shipped had a big label on the outside that said this: PLEASE REUSE THIS BOX. WE DID. One of their tag lines is "Powered by Leftovers." I love these people; check out the Web site. Several local stores carry their products: the Belfast Co-op and the Green Store in Belfast, Good Tern in Rockland and Fresh Off the Farm in Rockport.

There are lots of other sources for reusable and fun lunch-box containers, as my wife and chief researcher has found on the Web. Check out earthsaks.com for some very cool sandwich/snack bags as well as produce and shopping bags. They're also made in the USA. Another site to look at is laptoplunches.com. It's a California company that markets Japanese bento-style systems where a number of containers fit precisely into a lunch-box-size unit. Look at gogreenlunchbox.com for molded plastic, multi-compartment boxes that include a stainless steel water bottle. They fit neatly into brightly colored lunch bags. The Reusable Fresh Snack Pack is yet another way to reduce your use of throw-away bags for lunches. See freshsnackpack.com for details. And before buying online, see if there are local outlets for what you want. Buy in the neighborhood first; we're all in this together.