The used lunch trays Emily Fox took home about four years ago from the loading dock outside her elementary school were gross, some still plastered with ketchup.
Emily stacked the trays in piles of 10. She wanted to know just how many polystyrene lunch trays Piney Branch Elementary School students went through in a day.
“Three hundred and twenty-five," said Emily, now 12 and a middle school student. “And they all go into the incinerator and get burned and it’s very unenvironmental."
For more than four years, Emily and other members of the Young Activist Club in Montgomery County, Md., have been asking the board of education for a dishwasher at the school in Takoma Park, Md. They want to phase out foam for something greener, but their lobbying and fundraising, which has netted more than $10,000, have yielded little success.
From Maryland to Illinois to California, environmentally minded students are pushing to remove polystyrene trays from cafeterias and replace them with compostable, reusable or recyclable alternatives.
But change has been slow. School districts say that they want to go foam-free but that tight education budgets, infrastructure limitations and the relatively high prices of earth-friendly materials are often insurmountable hurdles in difficult economic times.
Even in Portland, known as one of the greenest cities in America, some schools still serve lunches on styrene-based, disposable trays.
“I hate serving on Styrofoam, but when push comes to shove, you have to decide where you’re going to spend the money," said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of nutrition services for Portland Public Schools.
For decades, environmentalists have shunned polystyrene (better known by the name of Dow Chemical’s trademarked Styrofoam) because it is slow to biodegrade and litters oceans and landfills.
Corporations and municipalities have taken note. McDonald’s stopped using foam burger boxes about 20 years ago. Jamba Juice plans to replace foam cups with paper ones in its stores nationwide by the end of 2013. But reform has been spotty for the nation’s school systems.
“We tend to be very resistant to change," said David Binkle, director of food services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re very rigid."
Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest public school district in the nation, switched to compostable paper trays in August. The change got national attention after middle school activists strung up a 30-foot tower of foam trays in a tree to spotlight the waste.
This month, the Hermosa Beach City School District in southern California started replacing foam trays with recycled paper trays once a week, thanks in part to the advocacy of Max Riley, a fourth-grader at Hermosa Valley School, and his second-grader sister, Reece.
“No Foam Friday" will run through the end of the school year, and the siblings say they’re pushing for permanent change.
But even young Max knows that there are economic realities to consider.
“Foam is very popular because it’s really cheap," Max said. “And 3 cents extra per tray doesn’t sound like much, but in the big scheme, it is thousands of dollars, which I don’t really mind but a lot of people do."
The Portland school system spends about 7 cents each for paper trays, compared with 3 cents for foam trays.
Montgomery County school officials estimate that converting to nonpolystyrene products would add $1 million to the cost of the more than 5 million trays students use annually.
But making the switch doesn’t always cost more.
In 2010, the New York City Department of Education implemented “Trayless Tuesdays." Officials estimated that the move diverted 2.4 million polystyrene trays from landfills each month and was cost-neutral.
Binkle said the Los Angeles district negotiated with suppliers when it moved away from foam, saving the school system at least $1 million on the 120 million lunch trays students use annually.
That’s why the Young Activist Club at Piney Branch doesn’t want anything but reusable trays and a dishwasher.