Six of the nation’s largest school districts dump polystyrene trays.

imageThis is an image of the new school lunch plate that some of the largest school districts in the country are using instead of polystyrene trays. It’s made from recycled paper, and the plates — and any food scraps — can be turned into compost. (Urban School Food Alliance/Urban School Food Alliance)

Six of the largest U.S. school districts have pooled their collective purchasing power to make significant changes to school lunch, and they’re starting by jettisoning the polystyrene tray.

The Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition that includes the school systems of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando, has commissioned a school lunch dish that is made from recycled newsprint and can be turned into compost after use.

The plate replaces trays made from polystyrene — most commonly known by the Dow Chemical brand name Styrofoam — a petroleum-based plastic that gets buried in landfills after use. Polystyrene, which can remain intact for hundreds of years, leaches pollutants into the water and air and is a major source of marine debris. (Dow notes that though many people erroneously refer to polystyrene drink and food containers as Styrofoam, the company’s material is not used to make food containers and instead is used as construction and insulation material and for floral and craft products.)

For those reasons, communities around the country are increasingly banning polystyrene containers — including the District, where the city’s restaurants and food trucks will have to give up foam plastic containers by January and the school system has transitioned away from the material. The Montgomery County Council voted in January to ban polystyrene containers by 2017, and the county’s school system has stopped using foam food-service trays.

Still, school districts across the country have clung to polystyrene trays because they are cheaper than compostable containers, costing an average of four cents each compared with 12 cents apiece for plates that can be composted.

But the six members of the Urban School Food Alliance leveraged economies of scale and commissioned a compostable tray at a cost of 4.9 cents each.

“We decided to grow our way out of a problem, to use our power as buyers to join with other large cities and use that purchasing power to move the market,” said Eric Goldstein, chief executive of the Office of School Support Services at the New York City Department of Education, which serves 860,000 meals a day, more than any other institution outside of the U.S. military. “It started out being three times more expensive, but now it’s a wash.”

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