Nation’s Largest School Districts Ditch Styrofoam Trays, School Lunches Get Eco Upgrade

School Lunches Get Eco Upgrade: Nation's Top Schools Ditch Styrofoam Trays

Polystyrene Styrofoam trays are being phased out of use from six of the nation’s largest school systems, getting replaced with lunch trays made from recycled newsprint that can be later composted.

Styrofoam, which is the brand name of the polystyrene trays made by Dow Chemical, are petroleum-based, and can take hundreds of years to break down in landfills. Polystyrene products are now a major source of marine debris, as well as a cause of air pollution.

The Urban School Food Alliance, “a coalition that includes the school systems of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando,” will begin to use the alternative trays, by January, reports the Washington Post, even despite the price difference, “school districts across the country have clung to polystyrene trays because they are cheaper than compostable containers, costing an average of four cents each compared with 12 cents apiece for plates that can be composted.”

But the Urban School Food Alliance was able to source the compostable trays at just 4.9 cents per tray, making the move away from polystyrene achievable.

“We decided to grow our way out of a problem, to use our power as buyers to join with other large cities and use that purchasing power to move the market,” Eric Goldstein, chief executive of the Office of School Support Services at the New York City Department of Education told the Post. “It started out being three times more expensive, but now it’s a wash.”

The six school systems do a huge amount of business in food and utensils, around $550 million per year. That buying power made it feasible to switch to the environmentally friendly trays. And the move is expected to have a significant impact as well, removing 225 million polystyrene trays from landfills, according to organizers. The new trays are FDA approved and has five compartments, according to the Washington Post, “with a section for a drink in the middle to balance the weight of a typical meal. It is designed to be easy to handle, even by the youngest students.”

The Urban School Food Alliance serves more than 3 million students a year in 4,500 schools. Other school districts have shown interest in the trays and may also make moves away from foam trays.

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School lunch tray image via Shutterstock