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"Tap and Stack" disposable cafeteria trays
Angry Beaver
December 30, 2009 - 8:22 pm

Schools are greatly reducing their lunch waste by asking students and staff members to “tap” all food off of their polystyrene trays and then “stacking” the used trays in a neat pile. The trays still go in the garbage, but stacked trays take up a fraction of the space required by trays thrown helter-skelter into trash bags. Schools pay for trash based on volume – not weight!

What is the best way to try this out at our schools? Obviously education is key. It might be something to try out during April in conjunction with Earth Day. We’d probably have to send home an annoucement with students to help spread the word. I think with a little work, we can make this a permanent thing. It’s some thing free that we can do to reduce the amount of waste we generate. The school will save a few $$$ using less garbage bags and maybe even save additional $$$ if we can reduce our waste enough so the school could use a smaller dumpster.

December 30, 2009 - 10:16 pm

Nice. That’s a really good idea, free, positive change, and kid based (kids seem like they change habits a little better than adults to me, but maybe it’s because I’m not a parent :D ).

This reminds me of a neat experience I had last spring… My company has a vendor in Korea that is HUGE. They have facilities all over Korea, and each one has a cafeteria, the one I worked at for a few weeks had two big cafeterias and fed thousands of people daily (they were free for workers, a standard perk in the industry there). In any case, nothing was disposable except the napkins, and everything was stainless. When you were done with your meal, you had to place all your food scraps in your bowl, place your bowl on your tray in the correct space, and hand it to the worker. you put your silverware (chopsticks and spoon) in the exact designated washbins and pitched your napkin while the worker put the food scraps in a bin and stacked the bowl and tray behind her. The food scraps were sold to pig farms. The napkins were burned, and the dishes washed for later. No plastic, take out trays, or eating at desks. Everyone followed the rules like clockwork, no time, space, or materials were wasted (except for the napkins). And it was just a way of life (they thought it was so weird that all the Americans thought it was a really cool system)

But it starts with the first step. Stacking trays. The Bambarans in West Africa have a saying – “Bit by bit the bird builds its nest”. Bit by bit :D

Angry Beaver
December 31, 2009 - 12:58 am

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I think the “tap and stack” would be a fairly easy measure to implement. The main obstacle against going with reusable trays at our school is that it would require hiring an additional cafeteria worker. The school district simply doesn’t have the budget for that. I doubt we can do something big like switching to reusable trays at just one school instead of district-wide (65 schools).

My current goal is to get the county to pay for recycling at all schools. I think if all of the schools recycled, we’d be able to reduce the dumpster size at each school. Smaller dumpsters are less expensive. The cost savings would offset the cost of a recycling program. I just wish the economy would get better so the county wouldn’t be so squeemish about spending a little money.

Beth Terry
409 Posts
December 31, 2009 - 1:39 am

I get that the point of this post is small changes and bit by bit and all that. But I just have to say that I am absolutely floored by the switchover to Styrofoam cafeteria trays. When I was a kid, there was nothing of the kind. We had washable, reusable trays of durable plastic, not Styrofoam. The plates, bowls, utensils were all durable and reusable. The only disposables were milk cartons and paper napkins. Oh, and straws, which initially were made from paper, not plastic. And I believe, although my memory is not so great, that we lined up to stack our dishes at the end of lunch, but I could be making that part up.

Am I really so old? At least I didn’t crawl across frozen tundra barefoot to get to school, as my dad claims to have done. On Long Island. :-)

Angry Beaver
January 1, 2010 - 3:12 pm

But times are different. It’s understandable (from the school’s perspective) to switch to disposable trays because they are less expensive. My school district could eliminate one cafereria staff position because of that switch. That’s what makes it so hard to make the switch back for us. Not only does the reusable trays (and associated costs for washing, maintenance, and regular tray replacement) need to be less expensive than the disposbale trays, it needs to make up for the added staff that needs to be hired. Our food service guy said that he’d love to switch back to reusable trays (or even something like the bagasse ones), but at the end of the day, he only has so much money in his budget. And I doubt that they’d ever pass on any extra cost to the consumer. I think that this fruit (reusable trays) is a little higher up on the trees. I think a more realistic goal (for my school district) is to get mandatory recycling in all schools. The cost impact would be minimal (if not cost neutral) as recycling would minimize the amount of waste generated which would allow for smaller/fewer dumpsters/less frequent pickups, which would pay for the cost of the recycling program.

Angry Beaver
January 4, 2010 - 2:09 pm

I just ran the idea by the teacher who runs our green club and she loves the idea. She’s going to run the idea by the principal later today.

January 5, 2010 - 10:22 pm

My university eliminated reusable trays because students were “stealing” them (borrowing and returning later, thank you) to use as sleds on nearby hills when it snowed. They initially posted a “do not remove trays from cafeteria” sign, then posted a cafeteria worker at the door, then just eliminated the incredibly useful tool from our midst. The second favorite “sled” were the US mail bins, which were way inferior. I prefer sledding sled-less, or “bumming it”, but I didn’t get to the school until the damage was already done (by my sister’s cohorts, so I did witness and maybe aid and abet). 20 years gone by, still no reusable trays because kids in 90-92 wouldn’t follow the rules.

Angry Beaver
January 6, 2010 - 1:12 pm

Universities are eliminating the trays for a number of reasons.

1. Less items to wash = save water and energy

2. Students would typically load their trays up with food and not eat all of it. By forcing students to go back to the serving line if they want more food, less food goes to waste.

Angry Beaver
January 15, 2010 - 1:57 pm

Bad news. Heard back from the principal and she doesn’t want to take on “another recycling program”, and the school doesn’t have the resources to oversee the kids to make sure they’re stacking the trays OK. Our principal is a really nice lady and she is sincerely thankful for the green club’s efforts, yet she is just so hard to convince to try and give things a try. I think the principal thinks a lot of our ideas will distract the teachers from teaching and the students from learning. We purposely present our ideas showing how they *won’t* be a distraction, how they (sometimes) save the school money, and how (sometimes) are educational for the students. You can lead a horse to water…

January 15, 2010 - 8:11 pm

hmm… sounds like a grass roots movement via students is needed. If students just spontaneously started doing it, even just some of them, it could catch on. Like a green version of jelly bracelets or side ponytails :D

Angry Beaver
January 15, 2010 - 10:03 pm

I still have hope that maybe we can institute a pilot program with one grade level. Unfortately, I would have to coordinate it with the one teacher volunteer who’s been the least responsive. One bright spot is that the principal gave me the go ahead to contact the county’s facilities department to get them to reduce the dumpster size/pickup frequency. The savings realized would pay for the recycling program.

PS – I’m not sure it’s been clear here on this forum but I am not a teacher in the school. I’m just a parent whose son goes to this elementary school. The fact that I’m not a teacher in the school makes it nearly impossible to have the type of communication with the students needed for such a grass roots movement.

January 23, 2010 - 6:29 am

Having a teacher that is gung-ho on something is almost a necessity. I’m involved with a school gardening effort here and the schools that take off are the ones that have a teacher pushing and at least one parent pushing the effort as well. When there is only a parent it’s too easy for those inside the system to simply put the parent off. The parent finally gets frustrated and gives up. Hey, I might as well put in a plug for myself here… I’m the webmaster and here is our website:

http://www.cbplace.com/garden Let me try using HTML too – the link is here.

Is it possible to get volunteers – retirees for example – to take on the tasks that the extra employee would do in the lunchroom? Of course the trouble there is you can’t have someone fail to show up, as the job would have to be done every day.

I can see the savings with the disposables, sorry to say. We had a big dishwashing machine at my school through which the trays would travel – lots of very hot water needed plus maintenance on the machine.

January 23, 2010 - 6:35 am

OOPS! goofed up this post. Disregard. Doh!

April 6, 2010 - 2:26 pm

Hi everyone!

I must admit it took me a while to understand what you meant by disposable plastic trays so I had to check out images on Google. All of the cafeteria-style restaurants I know around here (I live near Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) have reusable hard plastic trays. I often see employees cleaning them with soapy water and a cloth. It does not seem like that much work, so not that expensive, but it is indeed an added cost… I think we have to stop considering the environment as an external cost that future generations will deal with. We should invest in products that are reusable and durable now so we stop polluting with waste that is not highly recyclable. Even if, in theory, the disposable trays could be recycled, it does not mean they are. Only about 5-6% of all plastics produced are actually recycled into new goods. Perhaps we should start to invest more of our money into reusable and durable solutions. That also means helping schools find ways to finance this leap. It could go a long way by teaching our children to see a value in things they use and can re-use.

Chantal Plamondon, co-owner

Life Without Plastic

April 29, 2010 - 1:56 pm

After reading this post, it made me look into my daughter’s daycare food service since I had no idea what they use at her daycare. I have mixed feelings about what I found out. They use paper plates and paper cups which the kids throw away in the trash after they are done eating and no trays are used at all, so I’m happy they aren’t using plastic and not using trays at all. But sad in a way because it’s still throwaway, disposables, not reusable ones, though they do use reusable stainless steel utensils (Yay!). But then I saw their kitchen with the one cook who makes all the food for the daycare and understood why they didn’t do reusable. The kitchen is tiny and has a small dishwasher for the reusable serving bowls and platers, utensils, etc. There is no way it could accomodate reusable plates.

I spoke with the director about whether they’ve considered using stainless steel or wood/bamboo plates, bowls, and reusable cups, but she made a good point of “well, reusable cups would have to be plastic and we try to avoid plastic here as much as possible. we simply can’t afford stainless steel cups, or a new larger dishwasher to wash all the new reusables”. This caused me to wonder what other options might be out there for kids’ cups and plates other than reusable plastic, but not as expensive as stainless steel or bamboo? Any ideas?

Beth Terry
409 Posts
April 29, 2010 - 6:11 pm

hctavares — How many children are in the daycare? If not too many, would it be possible to ask the parents to bring reusables to the school and pick them up to wash themselves when they pick up the child? I don’t know because I don’t have kids myself. Just brainstorming.

Regarding big industrial dishwashing machine — That’s what they have at the Google campus! I saw it myself. They reduce their waste as much as possible in the cafeteria. No disposables. And they compost the food. But Google is rich and schools are not.

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