Every year the Howard County School System purchases 5,000 cases of polystyrene trays. Each case contains 500 trays -- that’s about 2.5 million trays used by students every year, according to data provided by the school system.
Each year, all these trays, used daily in the schools’ cafeterias, eventually make their way to the Howard County landfill, according to the school system.
The trays don’t leak, they’re reasonably strong, and they’re cheap, but because of their oil-based composition, they are also resistant to decomposition.
The school system is actively looking for ways to replace the trays with something more environmentally friendly, but is running up against a federal 'Buy American' provision as well as the high cost of decomposable trays.
One Long Reach High School student noticed this problem and has taken it upon herself to find a more environmentally friendly solution.
Rhea Malik, a 17-year-old senior at Long Reach High School, has been lobbying the school system and Howard County Board of Education to make the switch to decomposable trays in their cafeterias.
“The main thing is it is something that is so small, something that most students take for granted,” said Malik in an interview earlier this year. “But it has an effect on a large scale both environmentally and physically.”
Malik pointed out that styrene, a compound used to make the trays, was listed as a possible carcinogen by the National Institutes of Health in 2011. NIH wrote in its report that styrene can result in increased levels of damage in lymphocytes in workers who make products with the compound.
As part of her efforts to get the trays out of cafeterias, Malik pitched a plan to switch to decomposable bagasse trays coupled with composting efforts to the school system and school board. Bagasse trays are made of sugarcane pulp.
“I looked at what other schools have done to address this problem,” said Malik. “A number of schools started using biodegradable trays and to balance out the cost began composting.”
For example the school system in Portland, ME switched to biodegradable trays in the summer of 2012 by using an extra $50,000 it saved from garbage handling the year before due to a waste reduction program, according to Plastics News. The Los Angeles Unified School District switched to compostable paper trays after students strung a 30-foot tower of polystyrene trays in a tree to spotlight the waste they were creating, according to the Washington Post.
In February, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a city-wide ban on plastic-foam food packaging, including foam trays in school cafeterias, according to the New York Times.
However, the higher cost of biodegradable trays compared to polystyrene trays have caused school systems facing tight budgets around the country to be slow to change, according to the Washington Post. The Post noted the Portland, OR school system spends 7 cents each for paper trays compared with 3 cents for foam trays.
In Howard County, school officials say USDA regulations that force school systems to “Buy American” is prohibiting them from finding cost-effective biodegradable food trays. Although a schools spokesperson said they are working on finding an alternative to polystyrene trays.
The Buy American provision was part of a federal law passed in 1998 that basically states school systems that receive federal money should purchase domestically grown and processed foods “to the maximum extent possible,” according to a USDA fact sheet about the provision.
Howard County currently buys polystyrene trays from the Illinois-based manufacturer Tenneco Packaging for $15.75 per case of 500 trays. In comparison, Stalkmarket Compostable Products, a Portland, OR based manufacturer of bagasse trays is currently selling cases of 500 trays for $81 per case of 500 trays on Amazon.com. That's about 3 cents each for polystyrene trays or 16 cents for the bagasse trays.
A Chinese manufacturer of bagasse trays, Whenzyou Keyi Environmental, sells bagasse trays for 7 to 8 cents per tray.
“One of the basic premises of the Child Nutrition Programs is that they must follow USDA regulations that include a ‘Buy America’ clause for all products used in the program,” said schools spokesperson Rebecca Amani-Dove, in an email. “Mary Klatko, the program director, has been looking for altervatives that meet the ‘Buy American’ criteria.”
“It appears that the program will have a viable solution before the start of the next year,” added Amani-Dove.
For Malik, the Long Reach senior, she hopes the school system can find a solution that usesd biodegradable trays as well as a concerted composting effort, possibly run by students. If successful, maybe the schools could even sell the compost, said Malik.
Robin McClave, director of community health promotion at Healthy Howard, has helped Malik promote her cause. She said a shift from polystyrene trays in school systems should be something that’s sustainable at a policy level.
“If huge school districts can do it, so can Howard County,” said McClave.