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U.S. Urban School Districts Ditch Plastic Lunch Trays for Paper Compost Plates

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Earlier this month, NPR Radio in Minnessota reported on how six of the largest school districts in the U.S. have banded together to revamp school lunches.

School administrators in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas, and Orlando in 2012 formed the Urban School Food Alliance. And in May of this year, they announced that they were ditching polystyrene lunch trays and replacing them with recycled paper based lunch plates which will be run through compost. This is a significant move considering, all together, the schools in the Alliance serve up 2.5 million meals a day.

The new lunch plates are designed to be easier for kids to hold, and include compartments for side dishes and milk, said Eric Goldstein, who chairs the alliance. "And they're round, unlike the very institutional, rectangular trays we had before," he explained. 

Indeed, square plastic lunch trays have almost become a symbol of "uncomfortable" eating, often home to the infamous "square pizza" that went along with other terrible tasting food given in uniform style  to both those in school as well as in detention centers. A change seems like it can only be aesthetically positive a development as well. With the additional investments schools have made trying to prepare both healthier and fresher, better tasting school lunches for public school students over the past few years, a change in the now generations old and obsolete plastic tray seemed necessary. Not having to take care of those things would save schools a lot of money... if only it were affordable as well as environmentally acceptable to do so. Contributing to yard fill mess with things such as Styrofoam plates is generally considered inappropriate to do on any kind of regular bases. So plastic trays have managed to remain a stable at least since the late 1960s and 1970s when they became visible through their total dominance, though their introduction came even earlier.  

But now a new concept has been introduced to the market that answers the question of "How do we use disposable plates to avoid the high costs of re-sanitation of large cafeteria plates due to the price and environmental affect of disposables?". The paper industry has the answer, and furthermore, the production capability in their hands.  

The newspaper reports that's exactly what’s most revolutionary about these new plates – what they're made of.

The polystyrene used in traditional lunch trays is a petroleum-based plastic that as cited will not break down for hundreds of years. When the trays end up in landfills — and 225 million of them do every year — they leach pollutants into the water and air, according to the group. The new plates, by comparison, are made of recycled newsprint and can break down within a matter of weeks in commercial composting facilities. The  current price is technically slightly more expensive at the moment, but at only $0.049 apiece compared with $.04-even apiece for the plastic trays. As production expands of such products with additional supply agreements like these, price can fall even more. And that’s where the new plates could truly become dominant on the school market, particularly if the industry can work hard enough with enhanced efficiency recycling systems and efficient energy use that are becoming available, along with the increased demand. If a paper-based plate drops below the price of the plastic tray entirely, it will set a true benchmark. One our society may be approaching based on the news of what this large alliance is willing to do to begin the process.

It is well known that the plastic trays are not good for the environment. Washable, yes, but they do not actually last as long as many believe and a great number ever year find their home in landfills. This moved the alliance schools to act but they also believed that using paper plates would be a positive demonstration to students. They believe the use of compostable plates will help reinforce in kids certain basic truths about renewable resources. Goldstein said he hoped they will also be a way for schools to pressure cities to fund and develop better composting facilities. If suburban and rural schools can eventually create composting capacity, the appeal to make the switch to these new plates becomes more logical.

Not all the cities in the Alliance can actually compost their schools' new plates as of yet. Los Angeles and New York have municipal composting, but the other four cities lack plants that turn organic waste into soil. None of them have biodigestors, which turn compostable waste into natural gas that can be used as fuel, either.

"So far, most of the food waste coming from these schools is ending up in landfills," said Mark Izeman, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that advised the Alliance's initiative.

New York has a pilot composting program, and "is ahead of the other cities in terms of composting," says Izeman. That means the new paper plates from New York City public schools' 860,000 meals a day will be composted.

The Miami-Dade School District, on the other hand, is still working out what to do with all the compostable waste it creates. Right now, Izeman said, the district does not have a contract in place for compost pick-up, though the district is developing in-house compost labs connected to organic gardens at certain schools. And Chicago Public Schools has received grants to pilot a composting program at five schools.

"To build out long-term composting capacity in these cities and other cities, we need to have a steady stream of material that can be re-used and composted," Izeman added.

Before they develop composting and biodigesting facilities, companies looking to get into the business need to feel confident that they'll have access to a continuous stream of uncontaminated compost, said Ron Gonen, New York's former deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, and the CEO of the non-profit Closed Loop Fund, which helps municipalities fund recycling and composting programs.

"If the compostable waste is contaminated with plastics or other things, the facility will have to spend money cleaning it out, and they have to spend money putting what they can't compost into landfill," Gonen said.

By serving food on compostable plates, these school districts make it easy for kids to throw away their trash. "Everything can go in one bin, and there's minimal contamination," Gonen adds.

And when composting is done right, it can save cities a lot of money. Send trash to a landfill, and it generally costs between $50 and $100 per ton on average. Composting, meanwhile, costs about $20 per ton on average.

There's also transportation costs to take into account — landfills are usually far from cities and residential areas. In New York, for example, the city has to send most waste all the way to landfills in Pennsylvania. The composting facility in Staten Island is much closer and the compost that's created there can be sold to farmers and gardeners. "And the natural gas created by anaerobic digesters can cycled back to help power the grid," Gonen said.

The Urban School Food Alliance has also begun transitioning to compostable utensils. "I think this going to have a major positive impact," Gonen concluded. "And I think it'll really encourage the development of more composting and biodigesting facilities.

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