Green vs. Green

What is there to be done about the excessive lunch waste in Dexter schools?

Styrofoam lasts for thousands of years, and only breaks down at the physical level in nature.
By tate Evans

For the past few years, the Dexter school district has stuck to a lunch policy of using styrofoam trays as the primary means of plating in the cafeteria. If conservative estimates are to be believed, it can be said that Dexter Community Schools has used tens of thousands of those trays in the district’s history.

Due to a number of reasons, these trays can be difficult to recycle and are sent to landfills where the chemical compounds of styrofoam have almost no chance of biodegrading like a natural substance. However, the alternatives to these trays are costly in the face of a school budget already pushed to the limits by increasing transportation and athletic needs.

At DHS, the styrofoam lunch trays themselves are only a few cents apiece, but added all together, they mean considerable savings for the school.

Almost 1,150 students attend the school daily, and providing lunch for even half of them is no small feat. The entire cafeteria system is an assembly line of speed and efficiency where around 400 students need to eat in just a 30-minute time frame, necessitating cheap and time-effective methods to accomplish that task.

Many of these students pick up a lunch tray, and ultimately, they end up throwing it in the trash bin. Recycling something as simple as a lunch tray may seem easy, but in reality involves a time-consuming and expensive process when applied to a school level.

The first hurdle faced is the problem of residue and grime left on the trays from the food. Trays can’t be recycled if covered in food waste, meaning every individual tray would need to be thoroughly cleaned to meet acceptable recycling standards. This process would require an investment into manpower in the kitchen for the school. Even after that was resolved, DHS would have to pay someone to actually get them to a recycling facility.

“We could definitely do better with recycling,” Principal Kit Moran said. “Unfortunately, we just simply don’t have the manpower needed to do more.”

Because of those high difficulties of recycling, most trash will either end up in a landfill or incinerated. However, while other materials such as paper are biodegradable and eventually break down, styrofoam is incapable of biodegrading. As a man-made plastic polymer, styrofoam can’t be broken down organically by bacteria and other organisms, and can only break down into consecutively smaller pieces physically.

Think of it like a Russian nesting doll: they can get smaller, but their appearance and characteristics never change. Styrofoam is estimated at having a visible lifespan of around 1000 years and is likely to linger in our air, soil, and water table for far longer than that. Due to its incredibly small nature when broken down, styrofoam will eventually work its way through the ecosystem, going through oceans, rivers, forests, beaches and lakes on the way.

Styrofoam trays are made from polystyrene, a common synthetic polymer created from refined oil used to create a vast number of goods. In the manufacturing process of polystyrene, several pollutants are released into the atmosphere, including the highly potent hydrofluorocarbons (or HFC’s) according to Washington University in St. Louis.

After being given off as air pollution, HFC’s will often react with elements in our ozone layer and are one of the main pollutants that contribute to its decline. Besides the conventional liquid and solid waste produced by production, HFC’s are the largest concern from Polystyrene production. For some, those environmental costs that come from styrofoam trays must outweigh monetary costs when it comes to their health.

“There’s definitely a need for more environmentally friendly options,” junior Francis Fifelski said. “Regardless of what we eat, the environment around us can impact our health, and we have to keep it in mind.”

Alternatives to using these trays, however, are limited in their practicality for the school. In terms of choices, options for the school range from the long life of metal trays to biodegradable plastics and recyclable paper.

In fact, many colleges use metal trays in their own cafeterias, installing rotating conveyor belts for trays to be washed and reused for years. The cost factor of this expansion, however, is tremendous. While the average cost of a styrofoam tray is just a few cents each, going to reusable plastic or paper trays can send costs per student skyrocketing in how much more each individual tray costs.

In the case of metal trays, it’s needless to say the initial investment would also be quite substantial, necessitating not just the trays but new facilities to clean them. While metal trays can be reused for years, they would require commercial scale dishwashing capability, an expensive feat that requires high amounts of energy and water.

“Increasing the usage of reusable trays would increase our consumption of electricity and water,” Director of Food & Nutrition Services Jennifer Mattison said, who has looked into the particular option before.

Paper or biodegradable materials being used as trays are also a moot point if they cannot be recycled, as recycling facilities almost never accept residue on recyclables. But without recycling waste, anything we throw into a landfill can’t be truly defined as biodegradable.

Any biodegradable material, such as paper or corn-based plastics, rely on oxygen to biodegrade. If composted properly in an environment rich in water and oxygen, those materials would biodegrade just fine. Under a landfill or trapped in a plastic bag, oxygen is almost non-existent, halting the biodegrading process of anything inside.

With this in mind, tossing compostable waste will yield lifespans far longer than intended, negating the benefits a biodegradable tray would provide.

“So unfortunately, this option leaves us with, regrettably, a more expensive version of an item similar to our current option with the same landfill result,” Mattison said.

Recycling of styrofoam, however, is not an abandoned possibility by the school. There are machines within feasible reach by the school that could heat trays to such high temperatures that they would both carbonize the food (rendering it sterile) on the tr

ays and melt them into easily recyclable blocks. This kind of machine would go far to reduce both the transportation and cost difficulties of recycling, making it both convenient and more beneficial for th

e school. In terms of possibility, this kind of recycling is not far off in our future.

“The district is considering putting a machine of this type at one of the schools in the district as part of or our newly-passed bond,” Mattison said.

With this potential change in mind, there are so many different ways the issue of our waste could take us. For some, the usage of foam trays is reprehensible, an affront to future generations. For others, however, they represent a valid use in exchange for m

ore focus and funds towards education and necessary services.

It’s hard to judge what is right when dealing with the choices of cash or trees. It certainly goes without saying, however, that in debates over cash or trees, it’s hard to beat green with green, no matter which side you’re on.