Tray, Tray Again

Tray, Tray Again

School turns lunchtime trash into cash through foam tray recycling.

A school in California's Central Valley has found a green solution to an age-old challenge — recycling foam lunch trays. Westwood Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., launched a yearlong effort to recycle cafeteria foam lunch trays. The program has yielded financial benefits, taught students an important lesson about sustainability, and earned accolades from school officials and California lawmakers.

After learning that Dart Container Corp. would accept foam for recycling, Westwood teacher Laura Rodriguez modified her waste and recycling curriculum into a practical lesson for her students. Students were shown how to keep trays clean and in one piece, and how to collect them for recycling. Members of the school's student government created a “condiments station,” where students apply the condiments to other students' food, keeping trays clean and reducing waste.

After each lunch period, the children line up in the cafeteria to separate and prepare the foam trays for collection. Rodriguez then transports the cleaned, sorted trays to Dart's manufacturing plant in nearby Lodi, Calif., on her way home from work. Although Dart doesn't manufacture lunch trays, it accepts used foam products for recycling at its plants at no cost to the public. The trays are compacted and sold for reuse in the manufacture of non-food service products, including picture frames and decorative moldings.

The students set ambitious recycling goals — first to capture 75 percent, then 90 percent of trays for recycling. All of Westwood's 600 students participated in the program. The school reduced its overall waste load by 20 percent and recycled 90 percent of its lunch trays, reducing the number of required garbage pickup days from five to four. Moreover, the program has generated savings that the budget-strapped school can reroute toward other critical needs.

“We're beyond thrilled that our kids have taken on this project with such vigor, and thankful to Dart for being generous enough to provide an easy solution to recycle our foam lunch trays, saving our school money and reducing waste at the same time,” said Westwood Elementary principal Mary Miller.

Representatives of California State Senator Dave Cogdill and Assembly Members Bill Berryhill and Alyson Huber presented Westwood with a resolution last spring to recognize the staff and students in their efforts on behalf of the school, the surrounding community and the environment. State officials applauded the reduction in litter sent to landfills and the conservation of resources for future generations.

Often improperly called “Styrofoam,” foam products are recyclable and reusable. Foam is 95 percent air, which means it generates less waste in production than paper alternatives, is stable and safe in landfills, and burns cleanly in municipal waste-to-energy facilities.

Michael Westerfield is corporate director of recycling programs at Dart Container Corp., headquartered in Mason, Mich.

Related Stories