Piney Branch Elementary Students Campaign for Reusable Lunchroom Trays, Utensils

Paula Nersesian helps daughter Kira Goo, 9, test the step-stool provided for Piney Branch Elementary pupils at last night's Takoma Park council meeting.
Paula Nersesian helps daughter Kira Goo, 9, test the step-stool provided for Piney Branch Elementary pupils at last night's Takoma Park council meeting. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Casting about for a cause, the Young Activist Club at Piney Branch Elementary settled on something close at hand: the hundreds of polystyrene trays and plastic utensils discarded daily in the school cafeteria.

The students from Takoma Park, known as one of the D.C. region's most socially conscious communities, have raised $9,000 from foundations and sympathetic residents to purchase a dishwasher, washable flatware and other supplies so they can banish Styrofoam from their school. But they have met unexpected resistance from a school system in which food-service operations rely on the convenience and disposability of plastic.

"The cost and repair of dishwashers would raise the cost of a meal, which is not a good thing to do," said Joseph Lavorgna, acting director of facilities management for Montgomery schools. "It would cost more in Takoma Park to produce a meal than it would elsewhere."

The dispute puts the school system in the awkward role of defending the annual incineration of 5.6 million foam trays countywide to students steeped in the urgent need for environmental stewardship. Piney Branch Elementary goes through 250 foam trays a day, more when pizza is served.

"Polystyrene trays are bad for the environment and they have a big carbon footprint and they're made out of oil, which is bad for the environment, because it makes global warming," said Margot Bloch, 8, a third-grader at the school. Her mother, a peace activist, is among the club's sponsors.

Students have won over their principal, the school lunch lady and the City Council, which last year banned the use of Takoma Park funds to purchase small plastic water bottles. About 20 children converged on council chambers last night and spoke beside a stack of disposable trays.

"That's one day's trays. They're as tall as my brother," said third-grader Emily Fox, 8. The council passed a resolution supporting the students' efforts.

Like many public schools, Piney Branch Elementary once operated a full kitchen. Dishwashers disappeared from schools across the region in the 1980s and early 1990s in favor of disposable trays and flatware as meal preparation shifted to central warehouses.

A wave of protest greeted the first foam trays: Students at Gainesville Elementary School in Prince William County boycotted cafeteria lunches in 1990. Students from Lothian Elementary School in Anne Arundel County testified before the school board against foam trays that year. Howard County students mounted a petition drive against disposable trays in 1991. Montgomery County averted protest in 1989 with a recycling program that sent polystyrene plates, cups and trays to a reclamation plant in Brooklyn, N.Y. But that program was short-lived.

Today, foam trays in Montgomery, Fairfax and other large school systems are trucked to incinerators and "recycled" into electrical energy.

The Young Activist Club seized on the issue as a way "to take on something they could actually impact," said Brenda Platt, a parent and club sponsor. Last year, the club got involved in global warming prevention and polar bear protection, but "nothing palpable" came of it, she said. It was a plus that the students "already hated the Styrofoam trays," said Nadine Bloch, Margot's mother.

Montgomery school officials said they are considering biodegradable alternatives to foam. But they rejected the school's proposal to wash and dry its own dishes in a brief June 1 memo, citing "a number of operational issues," including labor costs, that led them to disposable trays in the first place. Students sometimes discard reusable trays or repurpose them as sleds. Dishwashers consume water and power and introduce chemicals into the environment.

About a quarter of school systems nationwide "have moved to more environmentally friendly servingware," according to a February survey by the School Nutrition Association, based in Alexandria. "Mostly that means plastic reusable trays that are washed," said Erik Peterson, an association spokesman. He said another 52 percent were considering changes.

The Takoma Park students calculate that their school spends $3,700 a year on disposable trays and $1,600 on plastic cutlery. They estimate it would cost between $2,000 and $5,000 to buy a rebuilt dishwasher, $1,500 to buy enough hard plastic trays for the 500 students and $400 to $600 for washable flatware. They also say it could cost $5,000 a year to pay someone to operate the dishwasher.

Montgomery school board member Christopher Barclay, who lives in Takoma Park, said he is "more than willing" to look at the student proposal. But "it has to be cost-effective," he said. "I can't ignore that."

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