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Duval Schools Exploring Foam Alternatives Admidst Student Lunch Tray Campaign

Lindsey Kilbride


Duval County public schools serve 62,000 lunches a day, and the foam plates the meals are served on aren’t recycled.

Back in May, WJCT reported about Duval teens who are demanding schools switch to reusable trays. Now the district is exploring alternatives.



Douglas Anderson School of the Arts rising junior David Baldwin is against the polystyrene plates his classmates eat off of at lunch. Styrofoam is a brand name for polystyrene material.

“Those trays, after they’re done with lunch, go straight to a landfill,” Baldwin testified at a School Board meeting a few months ago.

He and other students were engaging the district and collecting petition signatures in support of switching to washable trays.

At the time, Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that switch would be too expensive and possibly not sanitary.

He said, instead, “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.”

Baldwin and fellow Students Against Waste members questioned whether that was feasible. In a email to WJCT, the group asked how much more it would cost for recycling pickup of Styrofoam.

In response, the district sent an email saying its contracted waste management company doesn’t recycle polystyrene because locally there isn’t a market for recycled foam.

It also said, “Multiple factors, including economic and recycling needs, will be considered for future waste management options.”

The Douglas Anderson students also questioned the district's estimated cost of purchasing and washing reusable trays.

Duval Schools says switching to washable trays would cost too much. It estimates they would cost 20 cents per use when factoring in energy costs, supplies like detergent and labor. On the other hand, polystyrene plates cost less than 4 cents per tray.

Additionally, most schools would have to install industrial dishwashers.

But some districts around the country have made it work, like Prince William County in Virginia. That district's been using hard, washable trays made from polycarbonate for more than 38 years. It serves about 55,000 lunches a day.

District Spokesman Phil Kavits says the district doesn’t know the cost-per-tray breakdown, but it’s reviewed comparisons over the years that show long-term financial investment in Styrofoam and reusable trays are similar. And with the positive environmental impact of reusable trays, the district's opted to not switch.

Nationwide, the trend these days is for schools to switch to compostable or recyclable trays. A Duval Schools spokeswoman says switching to paper or cardboard plates would have a negligible added cost because recycling pickups are about $5 cheaper than trash pickups.

She says the district is discussing alternatives to foam with Duval’s food-service provider, Chartwells, and the district is committed to "finding a solution to the problem."


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.