How Can Schools Reduce Styrofoam Waste?

All across the globe, people use some form of Styrofoam. Styrofoam is a common material that can be found in almost every household nationwide. Shortly after being manufactured, is was approved by the US Coast Guard for use in life rafts. Because of its insulating properties and buoyancy, it is used as an insulator in building applications. but, unfortunately, Styrofoam poses many threats to our environment.  In 1986 EPA Report named the Styrofoam manufacturing process the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste, and the National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research has since discovered fifty-seven chemical byproducts released during Styrofoam combustion.

We conducted further research on the matter after many schools, including our own, began using Styrofoam lunch trays in an effort to cut down on expenses. we then became even more concerned about how the Styrofoam we use is affecting not just our school, but the world around us. We discovered many of the other dangers associated with Styrofoam, specifically when it has direct contact to the food we eat. According to the article "Clouds in your Coffee," when hot food or beverages are placed in Styrofoam containers, the styrene chemicals leech from the containers into your food and then into your body. Over time, this can lead to reproductive issues or even cancer.

Users are not the only ones affected: the workers in Styrofoam factories get the worst of it. During the manufacturing process, hydrocarbons are released into the air at ground level, which can lead to the formation of tropospheric ozone, which is a serious environmental pollutant at ground level. Today, more than 100 million Americans live in areas that fail to meet the air quality standards for ozone. Exercising is a positive way to maintain health, but, ironically, doing so while atmospheric ozone is above the legal limit can cause a person to experience reduced functioning of the lungs, leading to chest pain and pulmonary congestion.   

Styrofoam is being used for such a large variety of things that we may never completely rid the earth of it, but we can reduce the amount of Styrofoam products in circulation by introducing safer alternatives in as many ways as possible. we decided to begin our quest at our own school, home of the West Marion Trojans. We conducted an interview with a few of our cafeteria workers and were informed that our school uses an average of 2,500 plates per day, which adds up to approximately 17,500 per week, and 450,000 per year from our high school alone! Our cafeteria staff were aware of the long term benefits that switching to plastic trays would bring, but the fact that the Styrofoam trays cost so little made it difficult to convince them to change. Also, switching back to plastic trays posed additional problems concerning the lack of workers to clean the trays. To solve this dilemma, we had the Styrofoam trays replaced with reusable plastic trays, and then enlisted the help of In School Suspension and Alternative Education students to help out during lunchtime, thus eliminating the faculty shortage.

We interviewed workers and students and asked their opinion on the issue. Many were shocked about the information we recovered, some were not surprised. We convinced the cafeteria ladies to use plastic trays for one week. Their main dilemma was lack of workers to clean the trays on a daily basis. To solve this problem, we proposed the idea of volunteering students with disciplinary referrals to help out.. For the first week, a worker used a hand tayler to keep track of the number of trays thrown away for five consecutive days and we calculated the average number. During another week, we switched to plastic trays and recorded how things improved. We then converted the number of trays to weight which adds up to a shocking 19,197 pounds of Styrofoam per week and 313 tons per year.

We calculated the differences in cost between the dangerous Styrofoam trays and the environment-friendly plastic trays. The result was shocking. for buying plain Styrofoam trays for our school every year the school spends about $36,000, when buying 3000 reusable lunch trays for one year only ~$11,800, including approximately $200 for water used to clean the trays. It would cost half the price.

The amount of water used can also be cut down further by using a steam cleaner. These cleaners are specifically made for large numbers of dishes like in hotels or just schools, and use just a small amount of water. Even though the prize for buying one or two steam cleaners for the school would be very expensive, but due too the savings made after that probably paid off after only a few years.

Instead of employing another cafeteria worker, the school might also give "lunch jobs" as a punishment instead of letting people sit in ISS all day. The student could support the lunch workers in cleaning up trays, which also could have a positive moral effect on those students.

One of our issues  was the amount of waste produced by our lunch trays. According to the weight of a lunch tray (determined through weighing a single lunch tray) and the amount of trays used, our school produces approximately 313 tons of Styrofoam waste per year, excluding additional bowls, cups, etc. This Styrofoam will remain in landfills for ca. 500 years before it completely breaks down. In this time it pollutes the direct environment of the landfill and provides a great danger for stray or wild animals. Based on different internet resources, every single ton of Styrofoam that we do not use and therefore don't need to produce can save about 12 trees, 1,087 lbs of solid waste, 1,560 kW of energy, 1,196 gal of water, 1,976 lbs of greenhouse gases, 3 yd3 landfill space and 390 gal oil. Even with the use of often said similar polluting plastic for lunch trays, this amount would never be reached.

Hence, the school and the government would not only save money for buying and eliminating Styrofoam waste, but also "do something for the environment", as everyone always demands.

We tried to cut down the waste produced by schools through lunch trays etc. According to our research, the use of reusable plastic trays instead of Styrofoam would take us a great step further in saving the environment. It also frugals the schools by saving them big amounts of money, especially over a long term change.

The fact that plastic trays can be washed and reused reduces the waste a fair bit and partially prevents further damage on the environment. We can save on natural resources like oil, water and trees.

Probably, the greatest challenge schools have to overcome is to convince school board members, principals and parents of the sustainability of this change. They would need to counteract arguments like the cost of likely needed additional cafeteria staff members. Furthermore, the thinking inside this box "we alone can not make a change" has to stop. Everybody can change the world at least a little bit.

Only persuading presentations, a broad spread of the gathered information especially among the parents, and the unrestrained facts can overcome these obstacles. And the thought of what we can do if only every second facility in the world would exchange Styrofoam for other materials. Together we can make a great change, if we just start now and say:

"This has to stop now!"

To share our research, findings and ideas, we primarily went to a school board meeting and presented our plans. The outcome is not really clear yet, but it seemed to have left a great impression. We also work on publishing a new internet page on the waste produced by Styrofoam and possible alternatives. Through international contacts we also might be able to negotiate our plans and ideas to other countries (in this case Germany and Japan).


Written by Angel Thompson and Jose Endruschat, March 15, 2012, West Marion High School, Foxworth, Mississippi