Styrofoam In Schools

: A trash can at Leesville Road High in the cafeteria overflowing with styrofoam trays. The cafeteria at Leesville serves food on styrofoam most days of the week. (Photo Courtesy of Jacob Polansky)

Snuffing out our oceans, clogging our landfills, and feeding our children? The culprit of these heinous deeds is none other than insidious styrofoam.

Styrofoam–scientifically known as polystyrene–has been the bane of the environment for since its harmful effects were made known decades ago. In the state of California alone, roughly 400,000 tons of styrofoam are produced. Of that amount, only .8% is actually recyclable. As for the rest, its left to scatter to the wind–literally. Countless tons are left to float in our oceans and clog up our landfills for hundreds and even thousands of years. Sporting non-biodegradable characteristics, some scientists predict it could up to a million years to fully decompose.

 

What’s worse is the direct effect polystyrene can have on the human body. This material contains several carcinogens and neurotoxins–substances potentially hazardous to the human body. Styrofoam containers have been known to leak the toxin “styrene” upon contact with hot foods/drinks. The leaked styrene is secreted directly onto the warm food substance, which is in turn entered into the human body. Styrofoam is quite literally poisoning the mouths it feeds.

in response to these alarming statistics, countless entities have taken action. Dozens of cities and counties nationwide have banned or restricted the production of polystyrene. In addition, major food corporations have made environmental strides in beating the substance. McDonalds banned foam burger containers about 28 years ago, and Jamba Juice has ceased the use of styrofoam cups in favor of paper ones.

However, one of the few entities that still utilizes styrofoam consistently is public school systems across the nation. Styrofoam trays, plates, and containers can be found filling most trash cans in public schools post lunch-time.

“You have 31.8 million children in the school lunch program each day, and multiply that by 180 school days and that comes out to quite a bit of trays if they’re all disposable,”  said Dawn Undurraga, a nutritionist with the Environmental Working Group.

The issue is not recognizing the problem with styrofoam in schools–anyone with eyes can see that. The issue is doing something about it. Taking action to amend this styrofoam problem requires the very thing most public schools are either unwilling or unable to provide–money.

On average, a styrofoam tray costs three cents. The alternative is the more environmentally friendly paper tray for a whopping seven cents per unit. While a four cent price difference may seem insubstantial, it is anything but.

In Portland, Oregon, the local school system has made the switch–out with cheap styrofoam trays and in with expensive, eco-friendly paper ones. County officials estimated that converting to non-polystyrene products would add roughly $1 million to the cost of the more than 5 million trays students use annually. An increase in school spending of this magnitude could become extremely detrimental to taxpayers, other schools in the county, and even in-school programs that would lose funding during the conversion.

While solutions to the problem are in short supply, one option that is implemented in many schools nationwide is the use of a dishwasher and plastic trays. Unfortunately, this solution is often costly as dishwashers(and accompanying products such as soap and reusable trays) are often expensive and difficult to maintain. In addition, the amount of water expended in the repeated dishwashing processes is astronomical and an entirely different environmental concern altogether.

However, not all solutions have to be costly. In early 2010, the New York City Department of Education implemented a revolutionary new step in the fight against styrofoam in public schools: “Trayless Tuesdays.” Every Tuesday, all of New York City’s 1700 schools replace their traditional styrofoam trays with compostable paper boats. To keep the boats compostable, however,  they must remain “clean and dry.” The solution; serve dry, simple meals such as sandwiches on Tuesdays. The result was a phenomenal 20% reduction of styrofoam trays throughout the city, as well as the eventual 2013 ban of harmful styrofoam trays in all food establishments and schools citywide.  The runaway success of this small idea led to one of the greatest steps in environmental protection a U.S. city has ever seen.

At the very root of the issue, only three things are certain: polystyrene products are not environmentally friendly, styrofoam is still heavily utilized in the public school system, and not all schools are capable of doing anything about it.

“It’s definitely a dollars- and-cents issue for a lot of schools, so it’s important to look at what makes sense for schools not just from an environmental benefit, but also from a cost standpoint,” said Kim Martin, the founder of an environmentally inclined nonprofit organization called “Grades of Green.”

Public school systems across America have recognized the health and environmental issues related to serving food on polystyrene trays. Going forward, we can expect to see strides being made towards healthier, more eco-friendly school systems nationwide.

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