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Ditch Plastic Lunches: Stand Up for Zero-Waste Schools

Insights + Opinion
Cafeteria Culture

Carrots in a Ziploc
Grapes in a bag
Sandwich in saran wrap, with a "fresh daily" tag
Water bottle snuggled by an extra pair of socks
Plastic straw
Chips to gnaw
Juice in a box

That's an average American kids lunch stuffed in a school bag, with enough plastic packaging to wallpaper the classroom. Once it comes to school lunch, we don't practice what we preach, so let's unpackage what we teach.


There is a hidden curriculum in our schools. In many schools across the U.S. lunch is served on foam polystyrene trays, plastic forks and straws come in little plastic baggies, a plastic cup for fruit cocktail or vegetables sit on that foam tray, and a plastic wrapped Burrito or pizza rounds out the meal. Some schools even serve milk in a plastic pouch, like a water balloon. Yet, open any science textbook and whole chapters spout opposite messaging about what we put in our bodies, what touches our food and how we treat the environment. It makes no sense to teach students environmental ethics and recycling when we turn around and show them in the cafeteria that consuming single-use plastic and throwing it in the garbage can is the way we actually do things. This is the hidden curriculum.

There are also hidden costs. Styrene, the monomer that becomes the long chain polymer "polystyrene," is toxic from the start, from factory worker health to environmental contamination. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services categorizes styrene as "reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen." In the environment, most of us have seen bits of Styrofoam blowing in the wind. Those fragments break down further, and in sunlight UV degradation breaks polystyrene back into the monomer form styrene. Dr. Perry Elizabeth Sheffield, MD, deputy director of Pediatrics and Preventative Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explained, "As experts in children's environmental health, we know that what we do to the environment, we ultimately do to ourselves and to our children. Products like polystyrene create pollution where they are produced, where they are discarded, and inside our bodies. They dirty our air, contaminate our water, and get into the food chain. Because polystyrene threatens human health and cannot be practically recycled, we support a polystyrene ban."

Styrene likely isn't good for our children's bodies either. There are several studies that show styrene can migrate from packaging to food. But what of the multi-year, daily exposures children have to polystyrene products in the cafeteria? Debby Lee Cohen, executive director and founder of Cafeteria Culture, explained "Yet the long term effects of hot food served daily to children, directly onto trays made of the chemical styrene—sometimes 3 times per day and over a 13-year period—has yet to be studied." Hint to future researchers, there's a PhD thesis in evaluating the K-12 styrene exposure experiment underway on millions of U.S. kids.

Debby Lee Cohen envisions zero waste schools, which complements the growing global movement to end the one-way trajectory of plastic from production to the dump, incinerator or middle of the ocean. On a global scale, groups like the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Break Free From Plastic and the 5 Gyres Institute, with their Foam Free campaign, are turning their eyes to upstream to end the single-use throwaway plastic concept, that is rapidly trashing our land and sea. What better place to shift culture than in the classroom?

One classroom took action years ago. Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, California learned about plastic pollution in our oceans in 2012 and looked no further than the hundreds of foam trays they used daily. For one week they collected every Styrofoam tray from lunch room garbage cans, rinsed and stack them up, resulting in a 30 foot tall tower. They punched a rope through the middle and hung it in the tree like a giant rectangular snake. Two years later, the former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, John Deasy, announced in front of cameras on the school grounds that the entire district was going "foam free."

Other similar efforts were happening in other states, and in 2015, the Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of school districts in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale that leverage their combined buying power, found one company that made compostable lunch trays. By giving that one vendor all of their business, they brought the price down to the point where it was economically feasible. They made the switch. By the end of the 2015 school year half a billion foam trays were kept out of landfills, incinerators and student meals across the U.S.

But, as I document in my book Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution, the industries that make plastic are not giving up quietly. Dart, one of the largest companies making foamed polystyrene products, is on the offensive, supporting policies that push recycling. In New York City the legislative bill "Intro 1480" was introduced to promote foam polystyrene recycling. While recycling is a publicly favored concept, the reality is dirty foam is costly to recover and hard to recycle, requiring substantial subsidies in communities willing to foot the bill. Most cities don't want to burden tax payers with these added costs. Bills like this are less about stopping the harm to people and the environment, and more about protecting the market for foamed polystyrene plastic products and packaging. Environmental NGO's countered this bill with "Intro 1596" an outright polystyrene ban, and are working hard to educate policy makers to take their name off of one bill and sign on to the other. This work is the hard won fight toward zero waste.

Therefore, we need to rise from those tiny, one-size-fits all, plastic chairs with the built-in desk and stand up for zero waste schools, and for the healthy mind and bodies we want for our kids. There's a new lesson plan coming to a school near you, with a roadmap for change. Model zero waste schools are popping up in Boulder, Colorado, New York City, Marin, California and Oak Park, Illinois, and dozens of other cities. Cafeteria Culture has launched "Sort2Save," a tool kit for schools to go zero waste, with a step-by-step guide to get it done. Can you hear the school bell ringing? It's time to practice what we teach.

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