Schools slowly moving away from foam trays


Wishes can come true — activism and leadership might help make them happen.

All across the country, environmentally minded students and parents have been vocal about the use of polystyrene trays in schools, wanting to see them removed from cafeterias and replaced with compostable, reusable or recyclable alternatives.

A Washington Post article from 2012 reported how difficult it was to remove polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) trays from schools. Even though student activists pushed for changing the trays, most school districts were reluctant claiming that the cost increase was simply prohibitive.

“I hate serving on Styrofoam, but when push comes to shove, you have to decide where you’re going to spend the money,” the director of nutrition services for Portland Public Schools said at the time.

To curb that obstacle and get rid of trays made from a component, styrene, listed as a “possible” human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, some school districts got creative.

New York City’s Department of Education joined forces with schools districts from Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Orlando and Chicago to found the Urban School Food Alliance in 2012 to use their combined purchasing power to drive the change. That made possible for those districts to replace foam trays with a compostable, foam-free alternative in the fall of 2014.

That was a good idea, but membership to the Alliance was limited to school districts of equivalent size. Joining that alliance was not an option for smaller districts such as Brevard. That didn’t stop Brevard from pursuing other options to replace foam trays.

With almost five million trays used in 83 schools each school year, Brevard Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) realized that a more environmentally friendly alternative should be used in our schools.

Brevard FNS had been looking for more sustainable, but still affordable, options and had schools test different trays. According to Laurie Conlin, the District Food & Nutrition manager, cafeteria managers experienced some quality issues with certain brands — trays not separating easily on the serving line, or bending in half and breaking, or absorbing too much sauce or heat from food.

At the end of the test period, a five-compartment lunch tray made from sugarcane bagasse and bamboo was selected and the change was implemented in 2017.

Even with a cost increase of $0.035 per tray and some operational downside that called for trays to be separated before the start of meal service in order to keep the lunch line moving efficiently, Brevard FNS opted to stick with the more sustainable alternative and recognize that the “environmental benefits far outweigh the cost.”

According to Conlin, the community has been supportive of the change and as one of those parents advocating for the change since 2015 (see, the news of the replacement of foam trays was encouraging. I am proud that Brevard FNS took that task on to help our school district further its move to become more environmentally responsible.

More districts around the country are making the transition.

In 2017, Baltimore, Boston, Fort Lauderdale and Philadelphia joined the Urban School Food Alliance.

Just this past April, the Connecticut State Senate, in a bipartisan 29-6 vote, passed Senate Bill 229 to ban polystyrene trays in schools, colleges and universities. Under that bill, which awaits action by the state House of Representatives, each school district is required to develop a plan to discontinue the use of polystyrene trays by July 1, 2021.

Others, like the school districts in North Carolina, are slowly steering away from foam trays. With the assistance of Every Tray Counts, a non-profit organization, districts are eliminating foam trays and some are embracing composting as well.

According to The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, in districts where composting is a practice, “students serve as helpers each day, sorting the compostable trash, which teaches them to be good stewards of what they’re using and throwing away.”

The tray is the first step but we don’t have to stop there. Maybe here in Brevard County, we will soon make composting in our schools a reality, too.