ICSD Switches to Compostable Lunch Trays

By Kristie Snyder,
GreenLeaf Editor

When Pam Wooster’s daughter came home from school and asked her if she knew that the kids used disposable styrofoam lunch trays, she was appalled. She knew that after their 20-minute useful lifespan was over they would just end up in the trash, so she decided to take action. Two years later, the Ithaca City School District’s (ICSD) Food Service Program has switched to compostable trays and reduced its trash by 73 percent.

The new trays, made of sugar cane fiber, will be used in all of the schools in the district this year (except for the Lehman Alternative Community School, which washes its own reusable trays), and will be composted by Cayuga Compost in nearby Ulysses. The switch will keep about 775,000 styrofoam trays out of the landfill annually—that’s about 15 school buses full of garbage.

Wooster, GreenStar’s Education Coordinator, found out about the disposable lunch trays when her daughter was a student at South Hill Elementary School. “She came home one day and said, ‘Mom, do you know they throw away all of the lunch trays at school?’ I didn’t know! I thought, ‘What kind of throwaway message is this sending to our kids?’”

She put a message in the PTA newsletter looking for other parents to address the problem, and when a few responded, they met with Dale McClean, ICSD’s Food Services Director. “It was a discouraging meeting,” Wooster said. They found out that there had been prior attempts to make a change to something other than styrofoam trays, and that the school district had even recycled them for a few years (the program ultimately cost more than it saved). But the cost of washing trays was too high, due to labor costs, and the cost of biodegradable trays was perceived as too high relative to the cost of styrofoam, which, Wooster said, “is ridiculously cheap.” She didn’t give up, though. “Thinking about the styrofoam trays just pained me,” she said. “I thought it was unconscionable.”

While throwing styrofoam out to forever reside in a landfill seemed bad enough (styrofoam never really biodegrades, but it does break down into smaller and smaller chunks and pieces that often make their way into waterways and are then consumed by wildlife), the production of styrofoam was more concerning. Styrofoam is a trade name for expanded polystyrene foam, and a 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste. Styrofoam is a petroleum product, made from non-renewable resources, and it contains toxic substances, which can be absorbed by warm food or drink that comes into contact with the styrofoam. It is not cost-effective to recycle, so few recycling options exist. There are so many problems associated with the use and disposal of styrofoam that many California cities and counties, the city of Portland, Oregon, and Suffolk County, New York, have laws in place that ban or regulate the use of polystyrene foam in food packaging.

Wooster began checking out other options, and she discovered “Bagasse” food trays, made from sugar cane fiber, a by-product of the cane sugar industry. The trays are food-safe and biodegrade within 30 days in a commercial composting facility such as Cayuga Compost. They are manufactured in China by World Centric, in a factory that pays its workers fair living wages. They do cost almost twice as much as those ridiculously cheap styrofoam trays, and there is a fee for having them composted, but the costs are somewhat offset by lower trash disposal fees.

In June 2007, Wooster made a proposal to the ICSD School Board to switch to the sugar cane fiber trays. The Board was receptive, but concerned about cost. After a grant-funded pilot program tested the trays out in three schools last year, the School Board agreed to fund the additional cost ($28,000) of using the trays in all schools for the 2008-09 school year.

McClean says the new trays have been very well received by students, teachers and parents, and that ICSD Superintendent Judith Pastel has been very supportive. McClean feels that the switch to biodegradable trays is part of a bigger change taking place in the ICSD. “We’re really trying to turn the district around and to go green—it’s one step at a time.” The school district has started a new recycling program this year, and McClean thinks that the district could see its overall waste stream reduced by 60 percent, as a result of the recycling and composting (the 73 percent statistic referred to earlier refers to only the Food Service Program’s waste reduction, not the district overall). He also hopes to see the district move toward purchasing more recycled goods. “We are trying to reduce what’s going into the waste stream as much as we can,” he added.

Wooster feels good that, not only did she help make a real difference in the waste generated by the school district, but also that she showed her daughter that one person can make a difference. “She was impressed that I was able to do this,” she said.

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