New Blue Valley District Biodegradable Trays

This school year brought a change to the cafeteria routine. A movement by two Southwest students brought about the switch from styrofoam lunch trays to compostable ones. "[We] originally came up with this idea to reduce the amount of waste at Blue Valley Southwest," said Subhan Jamal.

The first day of school brought change for many in the lunchroom. When reaching for a lunch tray, students found that they were no longer styrofoam like in years before, but made of a kind of fiber. The new lunch trays this year are compostable and will biodegrade naturally, according to Huhtamaki, the company that makes them. This change in district policy was due to a two-year long effort involving discussions with Parent Teacher Organizations and district officials by two Blue Valley Southwest students.

Each year, every Blue Valley high school consumes around 250,000 lunch trays, according to Charles Rathbun, director of food and nutrition services at district office. The district has received complaints for many years now about the volume of styrofoam trays being discarded. The idea to partially reduce this number or switch to another option has been introduced many times to the district. The main issue always plaguing the decision to remain with the styrofoam trays has been the district’s budget. Until the two Southwest students began to research alternatives, there was no real cost-effective alternative to the styrofoam trays. The idea to use hard plastic trays was seriously considered a few years ago, but a number of trays were thrown in the trash and it took a large amount of time for lunchroom staff to wash the trays in addition to preparing meals. These factors convinced the district that hard plastic trays were not a viable option.

When junior Subhan Jamal and senior Quentin Allen first joined Southwest’s environmental club, there were only four members. The goal of their environmental club was to advocate for more sustainable and environmentally conscious practices in the district.

“We were looking for some [sustainability] projects to start and we chose the lunch trays,” Allen said. “Subhan and I originally came up with this idea to reduce the amount of waste at Blue Valley Southwest.”

They chose to focus on the issue of styrofoam trays because of their danger to the environment. Styrofoam is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled, so many environmentalists consider it to be a worse substance for the environment than plastic, according to the website Sciencing.

“Styrofoam is not an organic material so it really doesn’t biodegrade,” Allen said. “Some [sources] say it takes 500 years for it to degrade [and other sources] say that it takes 10,000 years or longer. But we really don’t know because styrofoam hasn’t been around for that long. We are also running out of space in our landfills. If we continue using styrofoam, we will run out of room.”

One of the faculty at Southwest had a friend at the food packaging company Huhtamaki. This connection allowed for a lower price estimate for the cost of purchasing the trays.

“We ask[ed] the PTO for a grant to try out a single semester at our school to cover the extra cost the trays would put on Southwest,” Jamal said.

The Southwest environmental club received a grant of $1,300 for a trial run at Southwest High School. The cost difference between the compostable fiber trays and the old styrofoam ones was 3.5 cents per tray.

The implementation of the biodegradable trays second semester at Southwest during the 2018/2019 school year was a real success, according to Jamal.

“We realized that this [was]n’t going to be something we can just do at our school, we should try to implement them at all the high schools,” Jamal said. “So in order to do that we had to meet up with higher district members.”

Southwest’s principal, Scott Roberts, put the two in touch with Rathbun.

“I think Mr. Rathbun was convinced that the tray we were using would be a viable option in the future. He decided to test them out and see because it wasn’t too much of a financial burden. He and the district went with the plunge for going to all the high schools.”

The added cost of switching to the compostable trays is $46,860 more annually, according to the district. Although the cost of the new trays was not entirely in the district’s budget, district officials decided to make the switch anyways.

“So we made a decision, I presented a memo to my boss, the chief operating finance officer and the deputy superintendent, about all the work that [Jamal and Allen]  had done on this topic,” Rathbun said. “It was really decided at that point based on the energy and effort that we need to just do this. I think at some point, foam will probably be banned. We’ve seen in some states that it’s just not allowed anymore. I see that the trend. So I’m hoping pricing becomes more competitive with these more environmentally conscientious items [on the market].”

When the Southwest Environmental Club met this summer, they assumed they still had more work to do to secure funding for the trays, according to Jamal.

“I didn’t find out until July,” Jamal said. “So I thought we were going to have to secure funding for further years in some other way, shape, or form. Our principal informed us that we had funding security for the school year for all the lunch trays. [We were] informed that the district was going all out.”

However, the issue of the added cost of compostable trays remains. Because this initiative is something the district will do every year, the cost will always be there. Jamal is now the secretary and treasurer of the Southwest Environmental Club and Allen is the new president. Jamal and Allen have formed a group called the Blue Valley Environmental Consortium with representatives from each of the five high school’s environmental clubs. The goal of this group is to look into possibilities for future funding for the compostable trays.

“Right now we’re looking into funding options,” Jamal said. “We have some time before the next year rolls around when we’ll have to have a solution. So we’re going to explore options for now. Our most likely ones are going to be raising the price of the trays on students and fundraising.”

Student response to the new trays has been positive overall. Students polled through The North Star’s instagram pointed that over 74% of BVN students like the new trays. 

“I love the new school trays,” said BVN assistant principal Kelli Kurle. “I was super excited to see a better biodegradable option [because] I was not a fan of the old trays. It was disheartening to see so much styrofoam [thrown away].”

The Blue Valley Environmental Consortium is also dedicated to promoted further sustainability within the district.

“I think there is definitely a push for [sustainability],” Kurle said. “It’s just trying to find the balance of paying for new green initiatives and then making sure they’re sustainable so we don’t just get a green initiative and then can’t find the funding or the resources for it.” 

Jamal and Allen are hopeful for the possibilities the Environmental Consortium will bring.

“I think as long as we have people from all around the district helping out and supporting this cause, we will definitely be able to keep these compostable trays,” Jamal said.