Getting Styrofoam Out of the School Cafeteria

• Jan. 28, 2014 • Innovators, Special FeatureComments (0)5582

Debby Lee Cohen showing  second graders from PS 20 Manhattan (Lower East Side) how to make whiskers for styro hand-puppets; as a part of Cafeteria Culture's "ARTS+ACTION, Make Change Messaging workshop" - Spring 2013, Photo credit: Atsuko Quirk for Cafeteria Culture

Debby Lee Cohen showing second graders from PS 20 Manhattan how to make whiskers for styro hand-puppets; as a part of Cafeteria Culture’s “ARTS+ACTION, Make Change Messaging workshop.” Photo by Atsuko Quirk for Cafeteria Culture.

NEW YORK, NY–“It’s not easy being green,” sang Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog. He may have been lamenting his skin color, but he could just have easily been lamenting the destruction of our environment and the unwitting hazards placed in front of our children.

This hit home for 54-year-old New Yorker Debby Lee Cohen when she took her daughter Anna, now 12, to a climate-change exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in 2009. Anna stared at one diorama in particular–a polar bear sitting on a pile of trash. “When we got home, she told me she didn’t want to eat school lunches anymore, because she wanted to save the polar bears,” Debby Lee says. “It took me a year to realize she’d connected the Styrofoam trash in the diorama with what she was handed in the school cafeteria.”

Debby Lee, who lives in lower Manhattan with her husband John, an art consultant, and their three daughters, is not the kind of mom who could rest quietly when she realized that her children’s public school cafeterias, with the food placed and served on polystyrene trays, were shockingly un-green with every meal. And there weren’t just a few trays in a handful of schools. There are approximately 1.1 million students attending NYC’s 1,700 public schools and over 100,000 employees at the Department of Education (DoE). Most of these students have at least two meals (breakfasts are free to all students, and lunches are often subsidized) each day at school. That adds up to over 860,000 polystyrene trays every day. Five days a week. For the past 20 years.

Do the math and the figure is astonishing: There have been over three billion foam trays from school lunches alone tossed in the trash, just in NYC. Even worse, because NYC exports its trash, all this non-biodegradable plastic foam is exported in gas-guzzling trucks to out-of-state landfills and incinerators. (It costs the city $330 million every year to cart off school and residential garbage.) Children in Newark suffer from high rates of asthma thanks to the incinerators there, burning other cities’ garbage.

Second graders at PS20 have constructed a polar bear puppet, named Icy, out of their used styrofoam lunch trays. Photo by Atsuko Quirk

Second graders at PS20 have constructed a polar bear puppet, named Icy, out of their used styrofoam lunch trays. Photo by Atsuko Quirk

Removing Styrofoam trays from schools, however, is actually extremely complicated. For one thing, the foam trays at about three cents each are cost-effective for cash-starved school budgets; compostable trays made from sugar cane cost nearly triple that. For another, there is the food safety angle. Few NYC schools have dishwashers, so the trays must be disposable yet sturdy enough to hold the food without leakage, especially when meals have sauce. And then there is navigating all the steps needed to implement major changes in such a large bureaucracy with so many other pressing needs.

Debby Lee had a personal reason for taking on the trays, and not just due to her daughter’s perceptive comments. “My dad was a brilliant salesman, and the ironic thing is that he sold paper and chemicals. His customers just loved him, and when he’d go out on sales calls, he’d drink endless cups of coffee heated up in microwaves—in Styrofoam cups,” she explains. Styrene, a chemical that’s a major component of polystyrene trays and food containers, is, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “reasonably anticipated to be carcinogen.” It leaches into food, especially when heated. “My father died of leukemia seven years ago,” she adds. “Can I prove it was caused by styrene? No. But it was likely a contributing factor.”

What she has done as co-founder and director of Cafeteria Culture (CafCu) is nothing short of astonishing. Instead of taking on the powers-that-be in the DoE, she partnered with them. The idea CafCu proposed was to have “Tray-less Tuesdays” citywide, with a goal of reducing trays by 20 percent in one year. The scheme worked, lessening the foam footprint by over 80 million trays since its inception. And CafCu is close to reaching their goal of completely eliminating polystyrene trays from all NYC schools, as well as from five other large U.S. school districts. The enormous combined buying power of these districts lowers the unit cost so compostable plates can be used instead of landfill-destined Styrofoam.

Debby Lee Cohen with second graders from PS 20 Manhattan and puppets- mini parade, culminating project of Cafeteria Culture's "ARTS+ACTION, Make Change Messaging workshop." Photo by Atsuko Quirk for Cafeteria Culture.

Debby Lee Cohen with second graders from PS 20 Manhattan and puppets- mini parade, culminating project of Cafeteria Culture’s “ARTS+ACTION, Make Change Messaging workshop.” Photo by Atsuko Quirk for Cafeteria Culture.

One of the reasons the indefatigable Debby Lee has made this program so successful is not just her dedication, but her unique set of skills. Trained as a collaborative visual artist and educator, she has taught design at Parsons School of Design in NYC and created multi-media works, scenic designs, and some of the giant puppets well-known to anyone who’s seen the annual Halloween Parade in downtown Manhattan.  “Artists are always on the cutting edge of change, and I look at problem-solving not in a linear, by-the-book way, but through the lens of design,” she explains. “Making use of design thinking creates a whole system where you can engage the creative process while you’re figuring out how to problem-solve, or when you’re teaching kids and you want the lessons to stick.”

Her training as a performer and designer gets kids psyched when they participate in the ARTS+ACTION Cafeteria Waste Reduction program, where students from kindergarten up through eighth grade spend two months learning about what waste really is. Students can become Cafeteria Rangers, overseeing all cafeteria waste sorting, recycling, and composting. This helps compliance with the citywide school composting program, which was started as a pilot in February 2012 by five green moms on the Upper West Side and has since been expanding citywide (see www.greenschoolsny.com). In one school alone, The Neighborhood School/PS 63, students composted all food locally, so the waste diversion rate went from 3 percent to 85 percent, and daily garbage pickups went from nine to one-and-a-half bags per day. Imagine what would happen if all schools in America were so vigilant and determined to manage their trash.

So next time you’re handed a Styrofoam tray, think about what it’s made from and where it’s going when you’re done with it. Think about Debby Lee, and how the quiet and tough persistence of CafCu has transformed school cafeterias, lessened the burden on the environment, and, potentially, made a marked difference in the health of the millions of students who’ll no longer be exposed to plastic foam trays.

“My passion is to create zero waste in New York City,” she says. “And I know it can be done.”

Want to get involved?

One of the most important aspects of CafCu’s work is the time we spend in public school cafeterias all over NYC. If your school needs help reducing its cafeteria garbage, write to us and we will be happy to consult, hold trainings to teach you how to set up recycling stations and start a Cafeteria Ranger program, and whatever else needs to be done.
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