Reversing the school styrofoam lunch tray trend

It may not seem like such a huge environmental issue, but when you consider the millions of students in the USA alone; the humble school lunch tray does have an impact.

I’ve been receiving a few emails of late from concerned parents and students in regard to a trend for school cafeterias to switch from reusable lunch trays to disposable ones – usually made of expanded polystyrene; aka styrofoam.

One person made mention their child’s school had spent a small fortune on making its new cafeteria LEED certified (highly energy efficient); yet made the switch to styrofoam trays.

The reason for the switch is usually down to costs. It’s cheaper at this point to use the expanded polystyrene trays than to wash the reusable variety.

In New York City public schools alone, 850,000 styrofoam trays are used each school day and then thrown away. Often the trays are incinerated.

Styrofoam lunch trays are by no means an environmentally friendly product. In my article on recycling styrofoam, I made mention of some of the environmental issues associated with expanded polystyrene; including the fact they are based on crude oil and the burning of styrofoam produces toxic gases. There’s also some concern that toxins can leach from styrofoam when it comes into contact with hot food.

If the means of disposal isn’t incineration, but landfill; styrofoam takes a very long time to break down, taking up a huge amount of space in what is already an overburdened waste stream. When expanded polystyrene enters aquatic environments, creatures may also ingest it; causing intestinal blockage that ultimately leads to death. Expanded polystyrene is a common plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

While styrofoam can be recycled, facilities for doing so are few and far between and given the bulk of its volume is air, transporting it to recycling facilities also presents cost and environmental challenges.

Styrofoam lunch tray alternatives

Schools play an important role in teaching our children good environmental stewardship and if school lunches are being served up on an environmentally damaging product; it’s not a great example to set.

However, this isn’t just a school problem, it’s a school community problem – parents, students and the government bodies overseeing the funding and regulation of schools need to be involved in a solution.

I can certainly appreciate the tight (and regularly reduced) budgets schools have to work within and that styrofoam trays are so attractive as they cost just a couple of cents each, but I also wonder if when making the decision to switch to styrofoam, the costs of disposal have been factored in.

Some schools have recognised the disadvantages of styrofoam outweigh the advantages and have gone back to reusable trays. To address the cost issues involved with washing the trays, volunteer programs have been set up, enlisting the help of students and parents.

Other schools are trialing compostable lunch trays made from bagasse, which is a waste product associated with sugar cane processing.

While the cost of bagasse trays is decreasing, they are still quite a bit more expensive than styrofoam; so some schools undertake fundraisers to help buy the trays. While a couple of cents extra per tray doesn’t sound like much, start multiplying that by thousands of meals a week and the costs really add up. Given the environmental/health issues involved though, parents have reportedly been quite responsive to supporting bagasse tray initiatives.

Bagasse isn’t the only type of compostable tray available – some are made from corn waste or recycled cardboard. To learn more about the options available and pricing, try searching on Google using the following terms:

compostable school lunch trays
biodegradable school lunch trays
recyclable school lunch trays

Biodegradable/compostable trays still don’t address the costs involved with waste removal and if they just go to landfill; they don’t actually compost and take a long time to break down.

Something that sprang to mind to address the waste issues would be setting up composting facilities on-site and the resulting compost used on school grounds; helping to reduce grounds maintenance costs. This would be an interesting student project in itself; very relevant to topics such as Science or Agriculture; so it could become a part of curriculum.

Sometimes there are no quick fixes, so it’s a case of tackling a problem a bit at a time and reducing harm. A great initiative occurring in New York City public schools since March this year is “Trayless Tuesday“. On Tuesdays, food is served in containers made from recycled paper that has a clay based coating to prevent leakages. While it’s just one day a week, the initiative is slashing the amount of expanded polystyrene tray waste by 20% – and that’s quite significant when viewed as a percentage of the 850,000 trays a day used in New York City schools.

Trayless Tuesday type initiatives also help raise awareness among parents and students of the issues involved with styrofoam; which can help in garnering support for further reductions in the future.

The other way to tackle the problem of lunch trays is to look at dealing with other forms of lunch related waste – such as wasted electricity, food, water and other forms of packaging. One school took this approach and lessened their cafeteria related waste from 6 dumpsters a week to two, and the savings then went towards re-introducing reusable lunch trays.

While not as flashy as solar panels on gymnasium rooftops, dealing with the expanded polystyrene lunch tray problem is a big step in greening our schools. Do you know of any schools that have successfully tackled the styrofoam lunch tray issue? I’m sure many Green Living Tips readers would be interested to know how it was achieved – please add your comments below!