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School district switches to biodegradable trays

Thursday, November 20, 2008 | 1:23 p.m. CST; updated 7:28 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 20, 2008
From right, Mateesa Crowley, 7, Madison Simpson-Baroli, 6, and Peyton Sheeley, 6, eat lunch from biodegradable trays at Blue Ridge Elementary. Blue Ridge Elementary was one of three Columbia schools to switch from Styrofoam to biodegradable lunch trays at the beginning of the school year.

COLUMBIA — In mid-October, all Columbia Public Schools switched from serving meals on Styrofoam trays to biodegradable trays.

Nutrition Services Director Laina Fullum has been looking for alternatives to Styrofoam trays since she started the job two years ago, but it was not an option until this year due to costs. The new biodegradable trays only cost 1 cent more per tray for the approximately 1.7 million meals served in the district each year.

"The community and parents did not like the use of Styrofoam trays, and I was looking for a way to make a switch," Fullum said.

The trays were tested at Benton, Blue Ridge and Grant Elementary schools at the beginning of the school year, and in the middle of October the trays went district-wide. The three schools were chosen because of requests from parents and teachers.

The new trays are made of polystyrene, a hard plastic that turns into a product similar to Styrofoam when injected with a foaming agent. Dispoz-O Products, Inc., the manufacturers of the new trays, calls it enviroware. Carbon dioxide is used as the foaming agent in enviroware instead of hydrocarbon gases, such as methane and propane.The trays also include an additive that makes the product degradable.

Unlike Styrofoam, which stays in a landfill for 400 to 1,000 years, the new trays begin to break down within 9 to 12 months, said Jeff Swiger, the director of strategic accountsfor Dispoz-O Products, Inc. The company captures carbon dioxide that is naturally emitted in environments like farms, and then cleans it for manufacturing the trays.

"We're not producing any new gases into the environment," Swiger said. "We're using what is already there."

The new trays look the same, but Fullum said the kitchen staff has noted that the new trays are sturdier and better at preventing spills and leaks.

"There's not a noticeable difference," said Susan LeBel, the kitchen manager at Blue Ridge Elementary. "They are stronger than the other trays, but it just makes the biggest difference ecologically. The overall ecological factor in the product is better."

The district uses disposable trays because they do not have the staff or equipment in all of the schools to use non-disposable trays and dishes, Fullum said.

In addition to the trays, the district also uses biodegradable paper bags for sack lunches and purchases energy-efficient equipment in an effort to become more environmentally friendly.

"When I look for equipment, that's the first thing I ask about, is whether it is energy efficient," Fullum said.

Other schools around the nation are also turning away from using Styrofoam trays, including a school in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, in New York. Also, cities such as Berkeley, Calif., Portland, Ore. and San Francisco, have banned the material.


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Comments

Corrie Humphries March 4, 2009 | 7:51 a.m.

I applaud the school system for making the switch to a product that is biodegradable, but the new trays still conatain polystyrene.

Traditional polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, a petroleum based product, emit Benzene and Styrene into food (especially hot food or drinks) when the food/drinks comes in contact with this type of food container.

I am curious to know, does this biodegradable tray pose the same health risks as traditional polystyrene trays?

(Report Comment)
Karen Sherman March 11, 2009 | 10:55 a.m.

I agree with the previous comment! Are you really sure that switching to a polystyrene tray was a good move? Please read here about the many dangers of polystyrene products:
http://www.earthresource.org/campaigns/c...

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 11, 2009 | 11:36 a.m.

The food was served on polystyrene trays before. This is just polystyrene that is more biodegradable than traditional expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam).

It can be argued that if the polystyrene is to be landfilled, that it is better off not breaking down, as the monomers of polystyrene are more toxic (and leachable) tthan the intact plastic is.

If the polystyrene cannot be recycled, it's often environmentally more responsible to burn it in a power plant.

Unfortunately, it's cheaper (by a lot) to use disposable dishes and utensils than to pay someone to wash reusables (china, vitreous, or melamine dishware)

DK

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand March 11, 2009 | 12:28 p.m.

"Unfortunately, it's cheaper (by a lot) to use disposable dishes and utensils than to pay someone to wash reusables (china, vitreous, or melamine dishware."

Not if they use students who break rules. Make it an alternative to detention.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 11, 2009 | 1:18 p.m.

Ayn sez:

"Not if they use students who break rules. Make it an alternative to detention."

You know the trouble with that, of course. Some kid would cut themself, or get burned on the dishwasher, something, and the school would be facing a massive lawsuit.

DK

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand March 11, 2009 | 1:51 p.m.

"You know the trouble with that, of course. Some kid would cut themself, or get burned on the dishwasher, something, and the school would be facing a massive lawsuit."

Perhaps the district could protect itself by having the parent or student sign a release. Something along the lines of, "I realize that as a troublemaker, I've willing put myself in a position to become injured, just as one day making trouble outside of school as an adult could put me in the position of getting sodomized in jail."

(Report Comment)

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