by Becca Stallings

PASUP’s SUP in Schools Action Team met with representatives of several Pittsburgh-area public, private, and charter schools in late 2019 and early 2020 to discuss what they are doing already and what they might be able to do to reduce SUP in their schools.

We decided to focus first on how schools are serving lunch and breakfast every day. In many schools, food service involves disposable plastic or plastic-foam dishes, utensils, and single-serving packets.

Many private schools and smaller school districts have the facilities to wash reusable dishes and/or utensils. Some of these schools are discarding very little SUP now, whereas others switched to disposable items that can be composted–although only some of those schools actually have a composting system in place, with other schools planning to arrange composting in the future. (Compostable products are better for the environment than other disposables only when they actually get composted.)

Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) is in a very different situation than smaller districts. After the era when all students either went home for lunch or brought bag lunches, when PPS began providing hot lunches it created a central facility where the individual meals are packed into disposable trays–originally aluminum, now plastic. Most school kitchens have only the equipment for reheating the meal trays. Even the schools that prepare food onsite are serving it on disposable plates. Only one of the 54 PPS schools has a dishwasher! This makes a transition to reusable dishes or cutlery impossible in the short term.

This means that the best way for PASUP to help PPS is to help them find compostable plates that are compatible with their food-packing and reheating systems. Another organization is working with PPS to set up composting of leftover food from students’ plates, which will be simpler to implement if the plates themselves also can go into the compost.

PASUP started working on this issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, which of course has put the usual school-food systems on hold while districts provide food for needy students to eat at home. We plan to resume working with PPS as schools reopen.

Meanwhile, we are sharing the information I collected about SUP-reduction measures in other school food programs, in hopes that other districts may find this helpful. I focused on large, urban districts in the United States.

Urban School Food Alliance districts collaborated to get compostable plates made of recycled newspaper by a factory in Maine, beginning in 2015.  These are sturdy and have a beverage space, making a separate tray unnecessary.  The combined purchasing power of the Alliance makes the plates cost only 5c each.

Here are the plates on the manufacturer’s website. Their full catalog of school lunch products is available for download; they also make utensils that are compostable in a high-temperature composter (but would not break down in an ordinary small compost bin).

The Urban School Food Alliance plates are currently in use by New York City, Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore (where Styrofoam is banned), and Dallas.

However, only a minority of the plates are getting composted.  Some of the articles above have details on that.  In New York, as of 2018, only 725 of 1,100 schools were even attempting to separate compostable waste, and many were not very successful at avoiding contamination.  Labor shortages made sorting difficult.  Condiment packets were a contamination problem which they hoped to eliminate by switching to pump dispensers for ketchup, etc.

Here is NYC’s guide to its zero-waste schools initiative—lots of good stuff beyond the cafeteria!

NYC Schools Guide to Zero Waste

There’s mention of Los Angeles *food* composting (but maybe not plates) here.

Campus Waste Reduction

Only 14 Chicago schools are composting the plates so far—but that’s >5,000 plates per day as well as food, napkins, and other items.

After seeing out-of-date information about plans for Austin, Texas, public schools, I contacted Anneliese Tanner, executive director of food service and warehouse operations.  She says, “We have composting at all schools, and use either compostable or reusable plates/trays at all schools.”

Portland, Oregon, is composting food waste and has eliminated foam trays.  Portland has several kitchens, each of which produces food for about 13 schools.  Here’s a video tour that shows trays made from “100% post-consumer materials; compostable and recyclable” in which single servings will be reheated; trays are sealed with plastic on top.  They also show a sanitizing machine for washable trays and say they own 9,000 of those.

I asked for more detail about Portland’s compostable tray supplier and about how they use those vs. washable trays.  I heard back from Jane McLucas, food service director:

“The paper container we use is an Oliver product, they provide the machinery as well as the paper container and sealing film. I will say that they have not been very receptive most recently.  They stopped making one configuration of the container, so I am not sure that they are the way to go.  While the container is recyclable, it is only after you strip the lining in the container, so they have ended up in the trash bucket.  It is on my list to look for alternatives, in case they go out of business.  Each container costs approx 14 cents, so it is an added expense.

Yes we use hard plastic trays for our elementary and middle schools, and yes we deliver and pick them up each day and wash them at Central Kitchen.  Most of the entrees come pre wrapped, but each school has a fruit & veggie bar/salad bar that they use the tray directly for.  It is the solution we use here, but not one that is the best.  Transporting of the trays is arduous work, the containers are only made for indoor use, and we take them outside over sidewalks, cobblestones, etc.  They take a beating.  Trays go from hot schools to cold outdoors, and between that and loss, I order about 1500 replacements each year.  Those trays are from Carlise, and cost about $4 each.”

The pandemic is likely to delay progress toward reusing or composting dishes because of the risks to workers handling used dishes and partially-eaten food; although there is little evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted via food or dishes, schools are unlikely to be comfortable making changes to their waste-management policies at this time. However, the problem of plastic on our planet persists, and PASUP hopes to reduce plastic in school meals as quickly as possible.