Serving Up a Better School Plate

Across the country, more than 100 jurisdictions - including New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. - have enacted bans on polystyrene foam of one sort or another. And NRDC has played a leading role in New York to bring about this change--read more from my colleague Eric Goldstein about this ban here and here. And so have many tireless advocates across the country, including our friends at Cafeteria Culture here in New York.

Today, these dreaded plastic foam containers suffered another blow when six of the nation's largest school districts - with assistance from NRDC - announced they will be ditching the annual use of 225 million polystyrene trays in their cafeterias and replacing them with eco-friendly compostable plates.

My colleague, Mark Izeman wrote more about the exciting announcement and the good work the schools are doing here but I want to focus more on the environmental significance of this decision.

In short, today's announcement by the Urban School Food Alliance - which including NYC, LA, Miami, Orlando, Dallas and Chicago - to introduce compostable plates is forward-thinking for at least three big reasons.

First, polystyrene is an environmental and solid waste burden.

Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic that generally must be sent to landfills for burial, where it remains intact for hundreds of years and releases pollutants that may enter air or water.

Polystyrene foam is also brittle and when improperly discarded, it breaks into little pieces and is nearly impossible to clean up. Polystyrene products contribute disproportionately to the litter problem - on city streets, in city parks and along beaches. And it is one of the primary components of marine debris, where it is harmful to birds and marine mammals. Finally, Polystyrene foam food containers cannot be cost-effectively recycled.

Second, the new compostable plate is an environmentally preferable product. The new compostable lunch plate is made from recycled newsprint (at factory in Maine) and is produced in a much more environmentally and worker friendly industrial process than polystyrene foam plates. Since it is manufactured using recovered paper scraps, the plate production also conserves trees, energy and water - and reduces greenhouse gas pollution.

Third, by using a compostable plate, schools and cities can make significant process in beginning to divert food waste and organics from landfills.

Food waste constitutes almost one-third of the general waste stream - and up to 40% in schools. For this reason, more and more jurisdictions -including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New York City - are imposing bans on the disposal of organic material in landfills to lower solid waste costs and reduce landfill-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

By using plates for composting instead of throwing them away, schools not only reduce the amount of waste to be landfilled, they also contribute to the creation of valuable compost that can be used on farms and for landscaping.

We salute these leading cities from serving up these new environmentally preferable plates - and joining a national movement toward composting and reuse of valuable food waste.

About the Authors

Margaret Brown

Staff Attorney, New York program

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