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Duval Teens Ask School District To Take Styrofoam Out Of Cafeterias

Lindsey Kilbride


Some Duval County high school students are asking the school district to stop using Styrofoam in cafeterias.  

The environmentally-conscious teens are collecting petition signatures, urging the district to replace foam lunch trays with ones made from stainless steel.

At Jacksonville’s Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Friday afternoon, students were buying chicken ranch tostadas and sweet potato fries for lunch, served on black foam plates.

But Sophomore David Baldwin wasn’t eating off a lunchroom plate. He brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from home. He’s one of about a 1/2-dozen classmates who are trying to get foam banned.

“I think that most students don't realize the impact that the Styrofoam trays have,” Baldwin said

He said manufacturing Styrofoam emits carbon, which contributes to climate change. The foam trays also don't break down in landfills, and are hazardous to animals.

“(Styrofoam) can be picked up by animals and birds and end up in oceans, and they can do things like choke sea turtles that mistake them for food or just other marine life that they do damage to,” he said.

Jacksonville University Science Professor Quinton White agreed. He said Styrofoam is really a brand of polystyrene, like how Kleenex is used as a generic word for tissues.

“Polystyrene, which is a polymer, is made from styrene, which is a petroleum product. So this is something we make out of oil from the ground,” he said.

He says polystyrene foam is 95 percent air and can be compacted very small, but it never actually degrades.

At Douglas Anderson, students get a free period every Friday called “Power Hour.” David and his anti-foam group use the time to organize their efforts. The students have a petition with nearly 200 signatures, and a couple weeks ago, David spoke at the School Board meeting in front of the superintendent.

“These trays are used by over 50,000 students every single day, and then all of those trays after they’re done with lunch go straight to a landfill,” he said in his speech.”This is extremely hazardous for the environment and needs to stop.”

Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he actually agrees with the students’ critique of the trays.But, he says, money for more eco-friendly trays would take away dollars from learning.

“I think that there are bigger issues here regarding cost, facilities, that would have to be revamped for larger dishwashers, for example, and higher labor costs,” he said.

The District pays less than 4 cents for each foam tray, and a washable tray would boil down to about 20 cents per use, including labor costs, according to the district. That’s on top of the initial purchase and retrofitting kitchens. The district says that would cost thousands of dollars per school.  And Vitti has a another concern:

“I worry about  bacteria and overall safety and health of children,” he said.  

But he says that’s still no excuse to not protect the environment in a district that serves more than 62,000 lunches a day.

“We only recycle about 10 to 12 percent of the Styrofoam plates now,” he said. “ In moving forward I think that can be the opportunity that we can do a better job of, meaning be very intentional, purposeful, strategic, about recycling the Styrofoam.”

But JU Professor White said it’s very difficult process to take used polystyrene and repurpose it. He said since it takes so much energy to clean and recycle the foam that a better option would be using compostable paper trays.

As NPR reported last year, six large school districts, including Miami-Dade and Orange Counties, formed a coalition and commissioned trays made from recycled newsprint. They normally cost about three times as much as foam, but the coalition negotiated a price just a cent and a half more expensive than their previous cost per tray.

Back at Douglas Anderson, David said his group is making a plan to keep the anti-foam momentum strong over the summer. And he doesn’t want their work to stop at the district level.

“We might even  expand and get the same done statewide or even nationally with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” David said.”They run the school lunch program. If they were to mandate something saying, ‘Hey, stop using Styrofoam trays or stop using disposable trays,’ schools would have virtually no choice in the matter.”

For now, he’s launched a website and wants more friends to help gather petitions.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.