School cafeterias now offering compostable plates at mealtime

new school lunch tray
© Urban School Food Alliance

Good news! An alliance of the largest school boards in the U.S. has opted to spend a bit more on compostable plates in order to cut down on waste.

There will be 225 million fewer polystyrene lunch trays in American landfills this year, thanks to a decision made this week by the Urban School Food Alliance. The Alliance, which is a coalition of the largest school boards in the United States, has opted to ditch the traditional rectangular polystyrene lunch tray in favor of a round compostable plate.

Says Mark Izeman of the National Resources Defense Council: “Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms. We are proud to work with a group of school systems dedicated to driving landmark changes in the health and sustainability of school food.”

Price is the main reason why this change hasn’t happened earlier. Polystyrene trays cost 4 cents each, compared to 12 cents for compostable plates. Once the Alliance chose to tackle this particular issue, it was able to use its collective purchasing power to create a new compostable design that costs only slightly more than the polystyrene, closer to 5 cents. The plates are made in Maine from 100% post-consumer recycled newsprint.

The Alliance represents 4,500 schools across six districts, which spend $550 million annually on food and related supplies and serve 2.5 million meals daily. When an organization of that size chooses to makes its approach more environmentally friendly, it has a major effect on the industries it supports; hopefully, it will also influence other districts to follow suit.

The next step for the Alliance is to introduce compostable cutlery, instead of the awkward plastic ‘sporks’ currently used by students, and to source antibiotic-free chicken for next school year.

While compostable plates are a step in the right direction, it would be wonderful to see more discussion about the possibilities of using reusable plates. Even if students were encouraged to bring their own plates and cutlery from home, with reusable or compostable options available at school should they forget, a system like that could make an even bigger difference in reducing unnecessary landfill waste.

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