Plastic Waste in the Cafeteria

Have you been in a school cafeteria lately? There are tables of smiling faces, a roar of excited conversations and a lot of plastic waste. Missing from most cafeterias are reusable trays, real silverware and glasses. Dishwashers are absent from the kitchens too. Schools embraced single-use, disposable plastic in their lunchrooms because it makes feeding hundreds of kids easier. But as plastic waste piles up in landfills and the environment, some schools are trying to wean themselves from disposable plastic.

Laurie Conlin, Nutrition Manager for Brevard County schools, says they are making progress. Foam trays were replaced with biodegradable trays two years ago. This year straws are absent from spork kits at high schools. High schoolers still get plastic-wrapped sporks and paper napkins but are encouraged to drink milk sans straw. There is still plenty of single-use plastic in cafeterias that Conlin would like to replace, though she explains: “It’s difficult to find good alternatives because plastic is inexpensive, works well and cuts down on labor.” Throw-away plastic has advantages, but there are serious drawbacks as well.

A Day’s Worth of Polystyrene Lunch Trays

Health: Styrene is used to make foam, polystyrene trays that children in many schools eat off of five days a week. We like to think that children aren’t ingesting this plastic, but can we be sure, especially with hot food or acidic food or when children poke holes in trays with their sporks for fun? Styrene is not classified as a carcinogen by the EPA though long-term exposure is linked to problems with the central nervous system. Headache, fatigue, weakness, depression, hearing loss and peripheral neuropathy are symptoms of a compromised central nervous system.

Environment: Tens of millions of tons of polystyrene are produced each year. It is difficult to recycle, and the best-case scenario is that this plastic ends up in an incinerator or landfill after use, and not in the environment. There is a recent bit of good news about the polystyrene floating in the ocean. It was thought to last thousands of years because microbes that might eat polystyrene find it unappealing. New research shows polystyrene breaks down in sunlight into carbon and carbon dioxide, two harmless building blocks of life, and decomposition takes only decades or centuries and not millennia. Still, decades are a long time to wait for polystyrene to decompose, especially when its useful life is over in minutes.

Kids Aren’t Dumb: Students are barraged with messages about the sorry state of our environment. They are told about an island of plastic twice the size of Texas and growing in the middle of the ocean. They learn that soon there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. They know that plastic bags kill dolphins and sea turtles. Then they eat lunch in the cafeteria. If plastic waste is really a problem, why do their cafeterias produce so much of it? The message doesn’t fit reality, and kids know this. Perhaps students think plastic waste isn’t really a problem. Or maybe they are afraid that plastic waste is a huge problem that nothing can be done about, and we’re all doomed.

Plastic waste is a problem, but it’s not beyond our control. Sixth-graders at Thomas Star King Middle School in Los Feliz, California were shocked to learn that the foam trays used in their cafeteria were landfilled and not recycled. Students collected the discarded trays one day, all 1260 of them, and strung them up from a tree in the center of campus. That got attention. Two years later the entire school district switched to paper trays.

Finn and his Reusable Container

Finn Mollison is on his high school’s student council in Melbourne, Australia. He explains: “There is a swell of energy among the student body for action concerning the environment and sustainability, but this energy is largely directionless.” Many students want to reduce waste but don’t know how to go about it. Finn worked hard to provide students with a simple way to reduce plastic waste in their school’s canteen. Months of consultations led to a change in school policy that students, staff and the state education board agreed on. A few months ago students started bringing their own containers to the cafeteria. They wash them at home and bring them back the next day to use again. Finn says his project is slowly building up steam, but some habits are hard to change. He thinks that rewards or discounts would encourage more students to bring their own container.

Laurie Conlin says the Brevard County school district is looking for bright ideas and biodegradable lunch ware. They listen to suggestions from parents and students carefully. Rather than scare school children about environmental problems, let’s empower them to help solve these problems. Challenge your student to come up with workable solutions. Cutting down on plastic waste in the lunch-room is not easy, but it’s doable, and success here will inspire students to tackle other problems.

Cleaning up plastic waste in the environment is doable too. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Collect trash. Throw it away. When you add your clean, used plastic bags, you make it easier for others to be part of the solution too. If your beach doesn’t have a BlueTube yet, buy one here.