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Reduce Your School’s Styrofoam Use — By Asking

Last year we wrote about Debby Lee Cohen, a public school parent and founder of the organization Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS) who worked tirelessly with the Department of Education to bring Trayless Tuesday to city schools. Because of her, every Tuesday all city schools are served lunch on paper “boats,” thereby eliminating the use of 850,000 Styrofoam trays each week (the amount used each day for lunch) — which if stacked on top of each other would be 2 miles high or 8.5 times the height of the Empire State Building.

One could easily argue that Trayless Tuesday has been the most significant environmental victory for NYC schools. But here’s even better news. Schools can also use the paper boats on Pizza Friday and every morning for breakfast, further cutting down on waste. All principals, parents, and teachers need to do is ask!

I know, given the extraordinary bureaucracy of the New York City public school system, this news may sound too good and simple to be true, but as a parent serving on the wellness committee at my son’s school, I can tell you that all three schools in our building now serve breakfast each day and pizza on Friday on paper boats, in addition to enjoying the paper boats on Trayless Tuesday. Many parents have asked whether the paper boats can be recycled even when stained. And the answer, I’m happy to report, is yes! (Milk cartons can also be recycled, so long as there’s a bucket where students can dump out their extra milk. The cartons do not need to be rinsed out for the Department of Sanitation to pick them up.)

The major drawback with the paper boats is that they can’t accommodate “wet” food, which is one reason they’re not used in the city’s public schools every day. At our school, for example, we used to serve salad with the pizza on Friday — but salad comes with dressing, which would leak through the paper. So we decided to start serving only fresh, cut vegetables, such as carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and celery, on Fridays. That way we could use the paper boats then. (Schools without salad bars can serve individually wrapped carrots on Fridays.) Substituting the paper boats for the Styrofoam trays for breakfast has required no menu changes. All we had to do was ask our kitchen supervisor that the boats be used.

There are few green school initiatives that cost no money and require hardly any time, yet still have a huge impact on our environment. Substituting paper boats for Styrofoam trays for Pizza Friday and breakfast is one of the few that I know of. Because there’s really no excuse not to make this switch, NYC Green Schools is asking parents, teachers, and principals to take the lead and implement this change at their school. Not only will the environment benefit, but so will children’s health — styrofoam trays are made of styrene, a possible human carcinogen that can damage the brain and central nervous system.

The more schools that demonstrate that the paper boats can be used successfully for breakfast and Pizza Friday, the more likely it is that the Department of Education will soon enact the change citywide. If you run into any problems making the switch at your school or want to share with us your success, feel free to contact NYC Green Schools.

SOS continues to investigate alternatives for the Styrofoam trays, the most promising being cardboard trays. Unfortunately, while healthier, the compostable sugarcane trays that some schools are buying and using also end up in our landfills because New York City has no composting program. If you have any ideas or suggestions about how to compost the sugar-cane trays and free the city’s schools of their Styrofoam use, contact SOS.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.