Some of the largest school districts in the country are switching from polystyrene lunch trays to a round tray made from recycled newsprint, which, along with the food on it, can be composted. Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post writes that six districts to make the switch — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas, and Orlando — are all a part of the Urban School Food Alliance.
The new plate will replace trays made of polystyrene, or Dow Chemical's Styrofoam, which is a petroleum-based plastic and is not recyclable. The plastic can remain intact for hundreds of years, puts pollutants into the water and air, and is a significant part of marine debris. However, Dow Chemical notes that it is a mistake to call polystyrene drink and food containers Styrofoam, while that material is not in food containers, but is instead used as construction and insulation material as well as for floral and craft products.
Nationwide, school districts have shied away from the recyclable trays, since polystyrene trays cost an average of four cents each and compostable trays average 12 cent apiece. Not for the districts that are part of the Urban School Food Alliance, though, which joined together to commission a price of 4.9 cents per tray. This coalition of school systems, by using the new serving trays, will remove 225 million polystyrene trays a year from landfills.
The alliance represents districts serving approximately 3 million students in 4,500 schools.
"This is a big deal," said Mark Izeman, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that has offered technical help to the alliance. "These school districts are moving forward without any federal, state or local mandates, and they're doing it because it's the right thing to do for the environment and the right thing to do economically. And it's going to trigger other actions by cities and the private sector."
The Urban School Food Alliance will be considering other purchasing decisions to improve the quality of food served and to support sustainability. One recent decision was to opt for chicken raised without antibiotics, and the schools are considering a move to compostable cutlery.
Another important change, writes Katherine Martininko of TreeHugger, would be a switch to reusable plates. This could even take the form of having children bringing their own plates and cutlery to school, with reusable or compostable options available at school if a student forgets. A step like this could make an even more dramatic difference in the amount of unnecessary landfill waste.
Technically, according to Truman Lewis of ConsumerAffairs, polystyrene can be recycled, but as the American Chemical Society explains, the process is not cost effective. Izeman added:
"Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms. We are proud to work with a group of school systems dedicated to driving landmark changes in the health and sustainability of school food."