School Meal Lines Shouldn’t Be Trash Lines
A lot of unnecessary waste works its way through our school system on a daily basis, particularly at breakfast and lunchtime. A stunning 4 million Styrofoam trays get thrown away every week in NYC schools, and that’s not even considering all of the plastic and Styrofoam plates, cups, and cutlery. All that garbage will be carted out of the cafeteria, trucked through City streets, loaded onto barges, and shipped to distant landfills.
This model is extremely costly, damaging to the environment, and lacks the kind of long-term socially responsible vision we should be instilling in our children.
According to the Hamilton College Climate Change and Environmental Issues Youth Poll, over 80 percent of high school students believe we “must consider the impact that our actions will have for the welfare of future generations.” Despite the overwhelming concern they have for our environment, the poll also found that the vast majority are not learning what steps they can take in their own lives.
I have introduced a bill in the State Senate (with a “same-as” bill in the Assembly) that would ban the use of Styrofoam in the food service industry, including our schools. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that that Styrofoam “can have serious impacts on human health, wildlife, and the aquatic environment.” One of Styrofoam’s components, styrene, also happens to be a known hazardous substance suspected as a carcinogen and neurotoxin. And did I mention that it takes 500 years to biodegrade?
But banning one product is not enough. Many schools do not have the capacity to store, use, and wash reusable dishes, and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) found that each family who sends their child to school with bag lunches can create up to 90 pounds of extra waste every year.
I challenge schools to take the lead, change the way we think, and capitalize on new opportunities available to them, including the growing environmentally preferable bioplastics industry.
Bioplastics are made from renewable and sustainable sources like sugarcane, corn, and soybeans that are made into trays, plates, forks, knives, cups, straw…and even garbage bags. Think about that—every bit of waste a school cafeteria creates can be biodegradable and compostable. San Francisco’s public school system has switched entirely to bioplastics, and utilizes that City’s composting system to save money. Though NYC may not have the same composting options, the sheer size of our school system provides an unparalleled opportunity to decrease the use of environmentally damaging products while also decreasing our huge solid waste problems.
The NYC school system and the Department of Sanitation should work together to conduct a full cost-benefit analysis of the costs and savings of switching to bioplastics, including decreased costs of handling and trucking that waste to garbage heaven (better known as Pennsylvania). This analysis should also incorporate examining new models of energy conservation, the use of non-toxic cleaning materials, and the implementation of a school system recycling program.
Earth Day this April is a great motivator, and would be an excellent goal by which to develop a plan for our school system.
Our schools should lead by example so that our students do not miss out on a great opportunity to understand and internalize socially responsible actions—actions that will stick with them the rest of their lives. To get our arms around an unsustainable waste stream and a changing climate, we need vision from our School administrators, and for our children to do better than we have so far.#