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.