Today, the nation’s six largest school districts made a stunning step forward for eco-friendly student dining. The Urban School Food Alliance—a coalition of school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando—announced that they will phase out the use of polystyrene trays and replace them with round, compostable plates.
This news is the culmination of a several-year-long effort by the Urban School Food Alliance (USFA) to introduce smarter options to school cafeterias. It represents two major, positive changes for cafeteria meals. On the one hand, a compostable plate is an obvious boon to the environment. The new round plates are an American-made product, molded from pre-consumer recycled newsprint. Collectively, the six school districts making the swap serve 2.5 million meals a day, and the districts project that this switch will remove 225 million polystyrene trays from landfills every year.
The second benefit is more subtle, but no less important. By replacing a rectangular institutional tray with a round, compostable plate, students will be learning by example, as well as by experience, that environmental responsibility is important in all areas of their lives. As a bonus, the round plates may feel a little more like eating at home, bringing an emotional cohesion to the dining experience that is often lacking in a noisy school cafeteria.
Most school districts across the country rely on polystyrene trays and plates because of their cost. They are substantially cheaper than their compostable counterparts by a factor of three. That’s where the power of cooperation comes into play. The USFA has exponentially more buying power than individual school districts, so they were able to secure the eco-friendly dinnerware for a price less than a penny higher than the landfill-clogging polystyrene.
Alongside this new plate news, the USFA will be spending part of this spring investigating options for compostable cutlery to accompany the recycled plates, beginning with the 2015-2016 school year.