Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that New York City schools are trying out “Trayless Tuesdays” in their cafeterias in order to reduce waste. Why are trays such a big issue? And how can cutting them out on one day a week really make a difference?

— Mark, Brooklyn, NY

Unlike the old days when many school cafeterias offered reusable trays that could go into big industrial dishwashers after lunchtime, the trend since the early 1990s in New York City and elsewhere across the country has been to provide students with disposable polystyrene (tradename: Styrofoam) trays that are used once — typically for less than 30 minutes — and then thrown out. From there, most of the trays end up clogging already overburdened landfills or posing a litter problem. Polystyrene, impossible to compost and difficult to recycle, is one of the predominant features of litter-filled beaches, not to mention trash-based ocean gyres hundreds of miles from shore.

According to the grassroots group SOSnyc.org, some 850,000 Styrofoam trays are trashed in New York City public schools every day. “At 80 trays per foot, the daily stack is two miles high, 8.5 times the height of the Empire State Building,” the group reports.

Polystyrene can be recycled by specialty recyclers, but most municipal recycling programs do not accept it. The fact that homeowners and businesses can’t put it out on the curb with the rest of their recyclables for pick-up — they have to pay a private recycler to take it off their hands — means that more likely than not it ends up in the garbage can or dumpster and subsequently a landfill. Also, polystyrene that is soiled with food is even more difficult and expensive to recycle due to issues of bacterial contamination — most polystyrene recyclers won’t accept Styrofoam that has had contact with food.

According to leading environmental groups, the polystyrene in food trays and other products is dangerous to both people and ecosystems “The basic building block chemicals of polystyrene…have been linked to cancer and other very serious health problems [and are] very hazardous to manufacture,” says Michael Schade of the non-profit Center for Health, Environment and Justice. He adds that he considers polystyrene “one of the most toxic plastics for our health and environment.” Despite these problems, the American Chemistry Council spends millions of dollars per year lobbying to keep products made with Styrofoam on the market, according to SOSnyc.org.

SOSnyc.org is campaigning for the removal of disposable trays from the New York City school system altogether, not just one day a week, but its campaign is a start. The group’s advocacy has not fallen on deaf ears. Since March 2010, all 1,500 New York City public schools have been serving lunch in recyclable paper containers every Tuesday, cutting the waste from polystyrene trays by 20 percent across the five boroughs. SOSnyc.org is spearheading an effort to find permanent alternatives for polystyrene trays five days a week. Those schools with dishwashers could switch to reusable trays. Recyclable or compostable cardboard trays could work for schools without dishwashers, but manufacturers have not yet come up with anything as lightweight and sturdy as polystyrene for such applications. But with such a big potential market for non-polystyrene trays opening up, greener alternatives are sure to emerge soon.

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