Upgraded to an A+: Healthy Trays, Healthy Students in the Sharon Middle School

Sharon MA middles school

Our family of five, including my three children, ages 12, 10 and 5, moved from Wrentham to Sharon in August 2016.  Anticipating the continuation of our greener-than-average lifestyle here in Sharon, I was blindsided one day when my son, Miles, returned from school. He extended a piece of a polystyrene tray, which he had torn off to present to me, while exclaiming  “Mom! You’ll never believe this…we eat our lunch on styrofoam trays!!”  My mind spinning, I tried to make sense of the idea that many hundreds of polystyrene trays were being thrown away daily, ultimately to be incinerated.  

School Lunch

Straight away, I reached out to several parents in town, as well as town, food service, and school employees to gather information about the reason for the use of those trays.  Without a clear answer or path to follow, my ambition to encourage the discontinuation of polystyrene tray use in the schools languished.  Intermittently, over the course of the school year, I checked in with Megan Sullivan, our enthusiastic and talented recycling coordinator, eager to receive good news.

On July 12th 2017, amazing news landed squarely in my inbox.  Megan emailed to share that Molly Van Cott, our fantastic and forward-thinking food service director, planned to discontinue polystyrene trays in the schools’ cafeterias and to replace them with paper trays.  Better yet, I learned that the paper trays would be compostable.  Thanks to the revenue from the textile collection bins, the paper trays from Cottage Street are being sent to a facility to be composted!  Hooray!  

Why is this good news?! First of all, polystyrene is derived from petroleum, which is a non-sustainable and polluting resource.   Also, styrene (which is a large component of the polystyrene trays) is toxic to the nervous system when ingested or inhaled; worse, it is  reasonably anticipated to be classified as a carcinogen by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Frustratingly, after a 15 minute stint of usefulness in cafeterias, polystyrene trays leave polluting toxic styrene particles in their wake.  To add insult to injury, birds mistake the polystyrene pellets for food, which propagates up the food chain.  Our students here in Sharon alone use approximately 850-1000 trays every single day.  The picture below shows the lunch trays from only one lunch period, out of a total of three lunch periods, at the middle school.

Sharon Middles School trays

Fortunately, due to the hard work, resourcefulness, and ingenuity of Molly Van Cott and Megan Sullivan, our schools will no longer be contributing to the styrofoam pollution.  Equally importantly, our children are no longer eating their lunches off likely cancer-causing materials at school every day. I am beyond grateful for their efforts.  Molly also let me know that she would hopes to phase in biodegradable utensils and cups in the future, which is such exciting news.  So, what is next? School gardens? Composting the trays from the other schools in town? Reusable products? I can’t wait to find out, and to help with future sustainable, healthy choices for our schools and town.

By Jessica Clay, Sharon MA