Students lead charge away from Styrofoam trays toward biodegradable alternative

When Aggy Deagle, Liv Deagle, Evelyn Fisher and Annabelle Cheney started circulating a petition last spring at Butler Elementary to get rid of Styrofoam trays at their school, they had no idea just how far their idea would go.

They were successful beyond anything they imagined. Instead of just eliminating the Styrofoam trays from Butler Elementary, the Canyons Board of Education decided to switch to biodegradable trays throughout the District. Now all of Canyons’ schools are using biodegradable trays and metal utensils instead of plastic wherever possible. And thanks to Canyons’ lead, as of this fall, four other Utah school districts have also adopted the biodegradable trays instead of the standard Styrofoam.

“It makes me really proud because it’s amazing that kids can make a difference, too,” Evelyn Fisher said as she sat at a lunch table and displayed her tray with a smile. “We are just kids, we were young, and we made a big difference, so I’m really proud of that.”

Fisher says she likes that the new trays are sturdier than the Styrofoam trays. She also likes the idea that her school is no longer disposing of hundreds of used Styrofoam trays every day.

“Styrofoam will outlive us, and our children, and our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children,” said Fisher, who is 10 years old and in fifth grade. She helped start the petition to get rid of the Styrofoam trays while she was in fourth grade.

Butler Elementary Principal Jeff Nalwalker supported his students in their environmental endeavor first on Earth Day, when the students initially asked if they could forego the Styrofoam trays. It was too cost prohibitive at the time to use anything but the Styrofoam trays, which cost about $.03 each, so instead, Nalwalker washed every plastic tray and dish that day.

Nalwalker considered washing the trays for an entire year, as a way to stop using Styrofoam, but the cost of that process was more than purchasing biodegradable trays for the school for a year. Even so, initially, the cost of biodegradable trays was $.25 each – eight times more expensive than Styrofoam trays.

When the Canyons Board of Education approved the Butler Elementary students’ petition and gave the go ahead to explore other options, a second quote for biodegradable trays came in at $.11. From there, Nancy Webb, Senior Buyer in Canyons Purchasing Department, who also represents 15 other Districts in the Utah Cooperative for Acquiring Resources Efficiently (UCARE) negotiated the price down to $.07 per tray, with the understanding that other Districts would also switch to the biodegradable trays. So far fivt districts, including Canyons, have made the switch to biodegradable trays in their schools.

In Canyons, the only exceptions to the tray usage are in secondary schools, if the food being served doesn’t fit adequately in the biodegradable tray. The change has cost more, but the impact is worth it, says Canyons Nutrition Director Sebasthian Varas.

“It’s a cost that we are willing to take on, based on the impact we can have on the environment,” Varas said. “We are hoping this is how it’s going to be going forward.” Now, Nalwalker hopes that his young students have learned a positive lesson about how they can work together to make a difference.

“Who knows what they will want to do next,” Nalwalker said. “The voice of a few children can make a big change.”

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