WASHINGTON — School lunches have changed a lot over the years and now they're getting another makeover in six major U.S. cities.
Polystyrene foam trays will be swapped out for compostable plates at schools in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami and Orlando, Fla., next year. The change comes after two years of work on the part of the Urban School Food Alliance, the cooperative buying group formed by the school districts, and The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
Reusable plastic and melamine trays have been largely phased out of school cafeterias over the last decade, replaced with PS foam trays that end up in the trash — 225 million of them every year, the Alliance estimates.
“Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms,” said Mark Izeman, a senior attorney for the NRDC.
Organic matter makes up 20 to 30
percent of the municipal waste stream, Izeman said, and in schools it can be as much as 40 percent. “Organics management and composting is now the front line of recycling expansion across the country. This move by the schools gets out ahead of that wave and the new revolution in organics management.”
While going back to reusable trays was briefly considered, Izeman said most schools removed their dishwashers when making the switch to foam trays and disposable cutlery. Replacing them would likely be too much of a financial burden. Cost was also a factor in going with polystyrene in the first place, according to the Alliance. At 4 cents apiece compared to 12 cents for most compostable trays, polystyrene has been the frugal choice for the estimated 2.5 million combined lunches served in the six school districts every day.
But pressure and the collective buying power of the Alliance resulted in a new compostable round plate, made from pre-consumer recycled newsprint, by Huhtamaki North America. The new FDA-approved tray will be made in Maine, the Alliance said, and cost about 5 cents each.
While New York City began a composting pilot program for more than 200 schools two years ago and Los Angeles is home to three composting facilities, those projects are mostly focused on yard trimmings and animal waste from the zoo. The rest of the cities making the switch to compostable trays in schools do not have large-scale municipal composting facilities.
Izeman and NRDC, however, say making the move away from foam and plastic products is “the first step in developing a market for composting, by having a steady stream of material.”
Next up on the menu for the Alliance and NRDC? Plastic cutlery. Izeman said Alliance members hope to ditch plastic utensils for compostable ones in school cafeterias by next school year.