The Urban School Food Alliance, which includes schools districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando, recently announced its transition from expanded polystyrene foam trays to compostable paper trays for school lunches. While this switch may seem like an environmentally friendly solution, it uncovers many myths associated with foam and exposes misconceptions about composting.
Recycling EPS foam is a reality through the creation of and support from foam recycling programs. Specifically in schools, foam recycling programs are easy to maintain and can help schools save money. The Houston Independent School District (HISD) realized the benefits of foam lunch trays after a failed switch to biodegradable trays. Shortly after the change, the HISD, the seventh largest school district in the U.S., encountered many problems with the new lunch trays. Not only did the new trays cost more than foam #6 trays, they were also not as reliable. Students had to use two trays in order to hold all of their food. This doubled the already expensive cost of the biodegradable trays. Additionally, the HISD found out the trays were not as biodegradable as they had been told. After realizing these problems, the school district returned to using expanded polystyrene foam trays and developed a foam recycling program. The district’s return to EPS foam trays and the creation of a recycling program has saved over $1 million in costs and has reduced the waste stream by over 75 percent.
The Urban School Food Alliance’s use of compostable trays exposes many issues associated with composting similar to those experienced by the HISD’s use of biodegradable trays. For one, there are not many composting sites that would be able to maintain the levels of composting that these school districts require. Currently, some of these school districts, such as the Miami-Dade School District, do not have commercial composting contracts. Without a contract, the schools would have to do their own composting. How do they expect to manage their own composting if some commercial composting plants cannot even handle it?
There is also a common misconception that composting is an easy task. Composting requires time, land, additional materials and thus, additional costs. If done incorrectly, composting can actually have damaging impacts on the environment. Inaccurate composting produces methane gas and carbon dioxide. When these gases are released, they contribute to the greenhouse effect that negatively impacts the atmosphere.
School districts should not fixate on the perceived benefits of using paper trays and composting, but rather they should remain focused on the facts and advantages of PS foam trays and create foam recycling programs.