Today was the first “foam free” Friday at the Norman E. Day
Elementary School in Westford where the school is scrapping use of polystyrene
plates, one day a week, and using paper plates that will later be composted at
Fat Moon Farm.
The initiative was inspired by a culmination of efforts coming together at once – Roger Whittlesey’s fifth-grade class, an effort to increase composting by the town’s recycling commission, and the Siemens “We Can Change the World” Challenge, which inspires students in an entire class to come together around an issue that they believe will make the world a better place.
In the case of foam free Fridays, the students, according to parent Savitha Rajiv, studied the use of polystyrene plates and how they don’t breakdown in landfills. Officials from disposal and recycling businesses spoke to the students about current recycling rates and issues with polystyrene. Last week, a representative of ReFoamIt of Leominster came to the school to speak about the company’s efforts to recycle polystyrene. If people bring the polystyrene to ReFoamit, the company will recycle it for free; it can also pick it up, but it charges a transportation fee.
After hearing all the information about the issue, along with the help of school officials, students decided to organize the “foam free” Fridays initiative. They made signs that they hung up around the school in order to let their friends and fellow students about the effort and are working with Whittsley to boost their efforts in order to win the contest.
The polystyrene trays are less expensive than the compostable trays – about 3 cents each compared to 8 cents a piece for the compostable ones. So there is an added expense. But it’s only about $7.50 per year, per student, for the district to completely move to compostable.
That expense, for the single day a week, is being offset by Principal Kevin Regan through the end of the year with hopes that it can be funded next year.
Susan Thompson, the chairwoman of the Westford Recycling Commission, was on-hand to help out, and said the commission was working with the schools and the farm in order to increase composted food waste. She noted that there were other schools implementing similar efforts.
Anyone who is 30 or older can recall the days when schools had hard plastic or even fiberglass cafeteria trays that were so indestructible, a person could throw them across the room and they wouldn’t break, as well as dishwashers manning shifts to clean the trays.
According to Whittlesey and Regan, sometime during the 1980s, instead of replacing the industrial dishwasher at the school, administrators moved to the polystyrene plates and bricked up the dishwashing area.
“It would break down regularly,” Regan said. “It was 40 some odd years old.”
Thompson said the new schools built in the town were designed without industrial dishwashers. She said the move to polystyrene was “a nation-wide problem” and districts were looking to find ways to compost things and not throw or pay to haul it all away, in order to be more sustainable.
As many as 45,000 polystyrene trays per year, according to a rough count by students, have been used at the school and thrown in the trash.
“They didn’t realize what it was doing to the environment,” Whittlesey said. “Every time they produce these, it puts poison into the ozone layer.”
Whittlesey noted that it would take the compostable trays about six months to breakdown into compost where as the polystyrene trays would take a 1,000 years. Across nine schools, at 45,000 or more trays a year, even a small amount of compostable ones could make a difference.
Thompson also noted the custodial staff and the schools, as well as volunteers, were all working at getting the compostable food waste to the farm and the program, so far, had been successful.