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No easy solution to school tray problem

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
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The second-graders at Zoller Elementary School in Schenectady deserve a lot of credit for bringing a major environmental concern to the attention of the school board.

Unfortunately, most of what they gained from their efforts was a tough lesson in environmental economics.

Students are upset that the district serves food on disposable polystyrene trays, which are tossed in landfills and can take thousands of years to degrade. So the students, admirably, wrote letters to the school board saying how bad the trays are for the environment and asking for a change.

The problem with getting rid of polystyrene, though, is that those trays are far more economical than the greener alternatives. Districts could use biodegradable trays made out of cardboard or sugar cane. Or they could purchase reusable plastic trays. But those must be hand-washed by staff or in dishwashers, which produce a lot of wastewater and use a lot of electricity.

While the long-term benefits of reducing contributions to landfills should be considered, schools districts also have to be concerned about the short-term bottom line. Even an extra 3 cents per tray — the average extra cost for a biodegradable replacement — adds up quickly to a cash-strapped district serving thousands of meals a year. The alternative is to increase the price of meals, bump up taxes to pay for the more expensive trays, or cut something from the educational program to pay for them.

The New York City school district has attempted to address the problem by curbing the use of polystyrene one day a week. Yet “Trayless Tuesdays” is hardly a solution.

Recyclers are working hard to find environmentally friendly, cost-effective alternatives to polystyrene trays. So far, they haven’t found one.

By bringing the issue of polystyrene trays to the school board, the students have passed their first test in civics.

But their best chance for reaching their goal might ultimately be in science class.

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