Portland, Maine, school district drops polystyrene lunch trays

Waste & Recycling News

by: Mike Verespej

Single-use polystyrene lunch trays will no longer be used in the Portland public school district.

The switch to paperboard lunch trays -- which will be made in Maine -- will actually cost the district more money. But the district is funding that higher cost with the $50,000 it saved in garbage handling costs from a waste reduction program that was enacted in the 2010-2011 school year.

The switch will take place when students in the district return to school Sept. 6. The district uses an estimated 450,000 single-use lunch trays -- or about 65 per student -- each school year. It has nearly 7,000 students in its three high schools, three middle schools and 10 elementary schools.

Since retired Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. made the decision to switch during the summer after evaluating the results of the district-wide composting and recycling initiative that diverted 30 tons of waste from landfills in the 2010-11 school year.

The schools will continue to separate out recycling and food waste from its trash, he said.

"Our students are learning how they can be leaders in making a greener world by simply taking a few moments to separate out their food scraps, milk, recyclables and redeemables," Morse said. "When the program is fully implemented, we anticipate reducing the trash that goes to school dumpsters by as much as 50 to 70 percent. That will save us thousands of dollars on trash disposal each year—savings that can be reinvested in sustainable practices such as eliminating the purchase of [polystyrene] lunch trays."

"This program gives students the opportunity to see how even small actions make a difference in the world," said Morse. "By separating out their recyclable items and food scraps from the trash, they are learning to become good stewards of the environment."

"We could find no other system of this size doing what we're doing," said Morse of the district's wide-scale recycling and composting efforts. "Our intention was never to cut our budget by $50,000. It has always been our intention to reinvest that money into our ongoing sustainability efforts."

The district hopes to transition from paperboard trays to reusable trays at some point in the future, he said.

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