DesChamps: Styrofoam Trays Don’t Belong In Greenwich Schools

Letter to the editor submitted by Julie DesChamps, member of the Greenwich Recycling Advisory Board

Every day in the Greenwich Public School cafeterias, our children are exposed to a toxic material that creates significant waste and environmental damage for just minutes of use.

It is time to replace styrofoam lunch trays with a safer, eco- friendly reusable foodservice ware.

Styrofoam contains styrene, a possible human carcinogen and neurotoxin that can migrate to food from these products. Styrene may leach into the hot and acidic foods ingested by our children or be consumed directly when students scrape the trays with utensils. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified styrene as a “possible human carcinogen,” while an EPA report lists multiple effects on the central nervous system from long-term exposure to styrene, including depression, fatigue, dysfunction and peripheral neuropathy.

Currently, students are exposed needlessly to styrene on a daily basis in lunchrooms, and most at risk are the more than 15% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Not only are styrofoam trays a threat to our children’s health, they pollute our environment and contribute significantly to our waste stream. Their manufacture requires fossil fuels and carcinogenic chemicals, such as styrene and styrene, and consumes considerable water and energy resources. Clean Production Action cites styrofoam as one of the most hazardous plastics, as every step of its production involves the use of chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment. Petroleum-based styrofoam creates a trail of pollutants during its lifecycle for mere minutes of use.

In addition to health and environmental dangers, styrofoam trays are wasteful and hazardous to dispose. As of July 2018, the Town of Greenwich no longer accepts styrofoam products for recycling, mandating the material for trash disposal.

Greenwich Public Schools will now throw away almost half a million styrofoam trays each year to be incinerated at a cost to taxpayers and to the detriment of our air and soil quality.

The emissions produced when plastics are burned are present in waste gases, water and ash and can include sulfur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals.

The National Bureau of Standards has found 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of styrofoam.

Our trash is trucked to incineration plants miles from our town in Peekskill, NY and Bridgeport, CT, communities where economic inequality and high rates of
asthma are documented.

Ash byproducts are buried in specialized landfills, like the Putnam, CT monofill. These populations must disproportionately shoulder the burdens of waste disposal – reduced air and soil quality and the related health effects of exposure. It is our responsibility to find ways to reduce this burden by curbing our waste stream.

Using a safer, eco-friendly alternative to styrofoam trays is one of those strategies. During a recent study at Eastern Middle School, parent volunteers removed styrofoam trays from the waste stream, resulting in a 75% reduction of cafeteria trash. The Greenwich Public School system is the largest entity in our town and has a significant impact on our municipal solid waste. If styrofoam trays were eliminated from all schools, there could be a considerable effect on hauling and disposal costs, custodial workload and the environmental and social justice impact of our decisions.

While convenient, disposables are not the answer! These single-use wares generate considerable waste, cannot be recycled due to food contamination and are an ongoing expense for our schools in terms of purchasing and disposal. In addition, some disposable wares, like molded fiber compartment trays used in other districts, contain fluorinated additives, or PFASs, to provide grease, oil and water resistance. PFASs are associated with serious health problems, and children are especially at risk because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to these persistent chemicals.

A safer, affordable disposable compartment tray is not yet available on the market, and paper boats are difficult to handle and cannot be used for all foods.

Styrofoam trays should be replaced by reusable, durable wares, like stainless steel compartment trays that can be cleaned by dishwashing systems. This is the most responsible choice for student health, environmental stewardship and waste reduction. Durable wares are designed for thousands of uses, not just one.

Although there are associated labor costs, reusables can save the district and town expenses due to the ongoing purchasing of disposals and hauler and disposal fees.

The Town of Greenwich Dept of Public Works and the Conservation Commission, as well as the Greenwich Recycling Advisory Board, all support a foam-free school lunch and the use of durable wares.

The Environmental Committee of our State Assembly just voted in favor of legislation barring schools from using styrofoam trays. Municipalities, states and nations across the globe have banned or are considering limits on styrofoam use. Greenwich Public Schools should model responsible behaviors for students and lead efforts to reduce waste, conserve energy and natural resources and, above all, safeguard our children’s health.

Residents of Greenwich, please join me to voice your concerns and request that the Board of Education replace styrofoam trays with a safer, eco-friendly reusable system of serviceware.

Julie DesChamps
Greenwich Recycling Advisory Board Member