‘Children can’t advocate for themselves’: American public schools have a massive plastic waste problem

American public schools serve lunch to nearly 30 million students daily, and many depend on Styrofoam trays and other single-use plasticware to do so. By one measure, a single middle school can create more than 30,000 pounds of waste through its lunchroom annually—multiply that by nearly 100,000 public schools in the nation, and the problem balloons to serious proportions.

For plastic reduction advocates, large public institutions such as schools, prisons, and government buildings are valuable targets for waste reduction efforts. The Washington State Department of Corrections implemented reusables in its prisons, avoiding the use of hundreds of thousands of plastic spoons annually as a result, which translated to millions of pieces of plastic eliminated across four facilities. In the case of schools, a move toward reusable cutlery and dishes not only diverts waste from landfills but can also introduce children to the importance of conservation.

“Changing the habits and attitudes of 6-year-olds is considerably more productive and, I think, worthwhile than changing the containers that get used by adult humans who’ve formed their own bad habits,” says John Charles Meyer, executive director of Plastic Free Restaurants, a nonprofit that helps restaurants and schools switch away from single-use plastics.

After setting up his organization to subsidize restaurants, Meyer realized that doing the same for schools was a huge opportunity. Expanding his focus has allowed him to achieve even more. “We’ve wiped out more than 7 million pieces of plastic at this point,” he says, as a result of changes at about 65 restaurants and schools.

Startups are also operating in this space. Indiana-based Ahimsa, which launched in 2019, has piloted a corporate sponsorship model with Cummins to subsidize the cost of switching to reusables for budget-strapped schools. Founder and CEO Manasa Mantravadi is a pediatrician, and her concern for the health risks associated with plastics led her to create a line of stainless steel dinnerware for children.

Findings published earlier this year found microplastics in human blood in nearly 80% of the people tested. The use of plastic foodware in schools is concerning, according to Ahimsa, which cites research from the Endocrine Society that shows endocrine disrupting chemicals found in some plastics can cause impairments in children.

“Children often can’t advocate for themselves. If we don’t keep children in mind in all the things that we do across the board, then we’re doing a disservice to the world,” says Mantravadi.

Though consumers still make up the majority of Ahimsa’s customers, the company has worked with corporate sponsors to introduce reusable products in five school districts across the country and expects fast growth.

“Just from these first orders, we can see that our school line will easily match and likely surpass our residential line, even in the next year,” Mantravadi says, noting that the average consumer will spend $150 on Ahimsa products and a school about $8,000 . “So you can be a business making a positive lasting impact.”

A subsidiary model

Schools that decide to switch away from plastic typically need help with funding and logistics. Meyer’s organization has been able to help schools in California, Oregon, and Washington to switch to quality reusables with private donations. He is especially impressed with Ahimsa’s stainless steel trays, and says they are a better option for schools than reusable plastic trays.

“The reusable plastics also leach chemicals and toxics, especially when they’re put through high temperature industrial dishwashers,” Meyer says.

Funding is not the only barrier for some schools adopting reusables. Meyer points out that in some cases, switching to reuse means extra labor, more inventory space, and reconfiguring a kitchen layout.

“A lot of people just don’t have the time or the patience for it,” he says, adding that not everyone who has shown interest in a subsidy has followed up with him. “The biggest hurdle is change.”

For the schools that have accepted funding and made the switch, there have been clear rewards.

Ben Schleifer at the Center for Environmental Health shepherded the process to move to reusables at schools in Emeryville, Calif., a city tucked between Oakland and Berkeley in the Bay Area. This year, grades six to eight at the K–8 Anna Yates School piloted using stainless steel utensils in place of the black polypropylene spoons and forks the school has used for over a decade.

“The students took to the new foodware on the second day of school and have been loving it ever since,” Schleifer says. “More students have been taking meals from school, and the students have said the utensils and trays feel ‘fancy’ and they enjoy a more authentic dining experience.”

There are already plans to expand the program. “In spring 2023, we are hoping to enlist the elementary portion of Anna Yates and also Emery High,” says Schleifer. This will impact approximately 500 school meals per day.

Schleifer points out that, while reusables can last for years before needing replacement, single-use food service items in school cafeterias are typically in use for only 20 minutes, even though they take much longer to manufacture and ship.

corporate sponsorship

Corporate sponsorships can also help accelerate this type of change. When Mantravadi reached out to the sustainability chairs of local corporations, Cummins saw it as a way to reduce waste in its home state; it has worked with Ahimsa to sponsor a charter school district in nearby Indianapolis.

“At Cummins, we are committed to improving the communities where we live and work,” says Zsofia Nagy, a global emissions compliance and environmental sustainability leader at Cummins. “We realized that it would overlap with all of our focus areas, so it was not a difficult decision to support this initiative.”

The initiative has impacted 1,250 students across three schools. The replacement trays help save an estimated 0.5 tons of plastic waste from landfill over a three-year cycle, when new trays would typically be repurchased owing to wear and tear.

“We hope to positively impact the health and well-being [of] students from marginalized communities by introducing a healthier alternative for their school cafeteria,” says Nagy.

Such initiatives offer a powerful way for companies to have an impact in their local communities, Mantravadi adds. She likens the business model to Little League, where local businesses sponsor teams as a way of promoting their companies while investing in the community.

“My goal is to get Ahimsa to the schools, but not have the schools pay for it if possible,” she says.