The Story of Styrofoam Trays (the detailed version) and what you can do to eliminate them.

Over the past 20 years, NYC schools have thrown “away” almost 3 BILLION Styrofoam (polystyrene) lunch trays! Nothing really goes “away.” For those first 10 years, NYC sent garbage to our very own Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. For the last 10 years since the closing of Fresh Kills, we have been exporting our trash (including 53 million Styrofoam lunch trays per year) to landfills out of state.

Our children eat school food directly off of these petroleum based, non-biodegradable, non-recycled Styrofoam trays, which are composed of the chemicals benzene and styrene. Used for a mere 20 minutes, Styrofoam trays take up a disproportional amount of landfill space in “someone else’s backyard” for, possibly, half a millennium before decomposing.

The NYC public school community has recently taken notice of the Styrofoam tray waste and related health issues. The appropriate moment to make change is now!

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about Styrofoam tray use in NYC public schools and suggestions for how you can help eliminate Styrofoam trays in our schools.

Why are we still using Styrofoam trays? McDonalds stopped using Styrofoam clamshells in 1991!

Styrofoam is cheap! At approximately 3 cents per tray, the upfront cost makes it difficult to find  “cost neutral” alternatives. With the total school lunch expenditure per child hovering at an insufficient rate of 1 dollar per meal, it is difficult to justify a price hike for trays. The long-term environmental and potential health costs of Styrofoam trays, however, are not reflected in that 3-cents per tray cost (details below).


NYC is the largest school district in the country, servicing 1.1 million students, and sending 8500,000 non-recyclable Styrofoam lunch trays per day to landfills, except for Tuesdays, as of March 2010.

Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS) asked NYC Department of Education (DoE) to reduce Styrofoam tray use by 20 %, resulting in TRAYLESS TUESDAYS. DoE SchoolFood implemented TRAYLESS TUESDAYS in less than a year’s time by collaborating with SOS and Parsons the New School. As a result, 2.4 million polystyrene trays per month are diverted from landfills (see DoE press release). Thank you DoE SchoolFood!

On Tuesdays, paper boats are used in lieu of the Styrofoam trays. DoE was already contracting these paper boats, allowing for a quick transition. DoE SchoolFood adjusted Tuesday’s menu to accommodate the paper boats by serving non-saucy food, such as sandwiches. If the used paper boats are “clean and dry,” they can be recycled. Students should flip-tap-stack their boats before recycling them (learn more about flip-tap-stacking and Trayless Tuesdays).

Why not serve cold or non-saucy food everyday, such as sandwiches and forget Styrofoam trays altogether?

Almost 80% of the 850,000 school meals served per day are free or reduced because of low family income, a harsh reminder that a significant proportion of NYC’s public school students are dependent on school meals as a vital nutritional source (City Harvest). For some children, school food may be the only complete meals they eat!

Why not use Tuesday’s “paper boats” every day?

Many schools are now using the paper boats for pizza Fridays, breakfast every day, and for other non–saucy meals. Please make sure your school is serving as many meals as possible in the paper boats. Speak with your school’s principal, Wellness Committee (every school should have one), and your SchoolFood manager (Regional Office contact information; more below under “what can I do today?).

Keep in mind that paper boats are not appropriate for all menu items, such as pasta and sauce. Also, many kids like the compartmentalized aspect of the tray, which keep sauces from mixing. SOS wholeheartedly supports the underlying mission of SchoolFood: assuring that ALL children in NYC public schools have access to food (many children are dependent on 3 meals per school day, provided by DoE SchoolFood). The promotion of school food to children who are hungry is something we should all support.

What are the alternatives?

We don’t want to create new problems while trying to solve old ones! It is important to consider all environmental and health impacts of each alternative solution, or the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). This includes: use of raw and non-renewable resources; byproducts created by manufacturing; transport of product, raw materials, and waste products; corporate social responsibility (CSR- workers’ conditions), and the cost of disposal, versus recycling or composting.

Many great compostable and recyclable trays exist, but they are still too expensive and we need the support systems to make these viable solutions. The price of NYC’s Styrofoam trays recently decreased, keeping alternatives further out of the market. As demand for new products increases, prices are indeed coming down. Via sheer scale and purchasing power, any NYC DoE procurement change has enormous potential to shift national market trends (see Cooperative Purchasing, below).

We need increased city support for the piloting alternatives, such as compostables and recyclables. Please contact your city council member and tell them that this issue is important to you (see our SOS action page).

Should we send Bagasse (sugar cane) or compostable trays to the landfill?

SOS supports the use of compostable trays when schools are willing to work towards finding composting solutions, as opposed to sending the trays to landfills. Modern landfills are designed to preserve their contents, rather than transforming them to humus or mulch. When compostable trays (such as Bagasse or sugar cane) and other compostables (like paper and food waste) are sent to landfills, they decompose anaerobically, without oxygen, creating methane and contributing to climate change. They do not break down the way they would in a compost pile! (for more information, see Cool 2012–  Compostable Organics Out of Landfills 2012)

How can our school self-fund compostable trays?

Schools can self-fund the extra cost for purchasing biodegradable sugarcane pulp trays thru the DoE office of SchoolFood. The cost is about 3 cents more per tray, which is prohibitive for most public schools (even with the use of paper boats for almost half the meals served).

For more information, see our SOS blog page: How to order Sugarcane Pulp trays from NYC DoE SchoolFood

Do any school-farm partnerships exist for composting compostable trays?

SOS recently suggested to PS 89 Liberty School (Battery Park) to partner with a farm for the ”back-hauling” of the school’s compostable trays, i.e., taking used trays back to the farm in their already in-the neighborhood, returning, almost empty truck. The school’s dedicated parent green team took the idea and made it a reality! They are now partnering with Holton Farms of Vermont, a CSA. Holton builds its farm business and school trays get composted! (subscribe to this blog for tray composting updates).

Are paper recyclable  trays an option?

SOS/Cafeteria Culture is working on this! Recyclable paper or paper pulp trays could be a possible option, if manufactured with post consumer or pre-consumer waste. A paper tray would need an appropriate food barrier or liner and FDA approval. Paper must be kept clean enough to be recyclable and the top liner could potentially be removed by students and composted with food waste. Food waste is a huge methane producing garbage concern, which SOS/Cafeteria Culture is also addressing.

 Why not use dishwashers, like the ones we had as kids?

Currently, there are only about 30 public school cafeterias in all of NYC that still have dishwashers installed and only one DoE school, the new Harbor School, using a (new) dishwasher and washable food service-ware. Bravo to the Harbor School!

Department of Health requires the reusable trays/plates to be washed at 180 degrees. Multiply that times 850,000 school meals per day and that translates to an enormous amount of water and energy. Dishwashers are expensive to purchase and maintain. Add the cost of labor, soap and maintenance.

Styrofoam (polystyrene) manufacturing also requires significant amounts of energy  and water, as well as petroleum and styrene, leaving a long trail of released pollutants during its seemingly endless life cycle.

Dishwashers have come a long way in the last 20 years. Energy and water efficiency are key to current design innovations. SOS is working towards pilot programs of new energy efficient dishwashers and reusable dishes in several schools, to acquire up-to-date data and full life cycle cost comparisons

Cooperative Purchasing

Imagine if NYC partnered with L.A. and other large school districts to procure alternative trays! The price would come down even further and faster. This is a great reason to move the Styrofoam tray issue to the national agenda (please contact us if you can help with SOS-national).

Extended Producer Responsibility  (EPR)

Some countries are adopting EPR policies, which require manufacturers to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products! Imagine if Pactive, the current manufacturer of our 850,000 Styrofoam trays used daily –  was responsible for the disposal costs for all the trays we purchase.

For more information, see the New York Product Stewardship Council website.

What are the long-term environmental costs of Styrofoam tray use?

NYC’s  annual waste disposal bill has tripled since 1999 and  continues to rise. The cost of disposing of 8500,000 Styrofoam trays per day is paid out of NYC’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) budget, not accounted for in DoE’s 3 cents per tray expenditure.

We, the taxpayers, are paying for these single-use, non recyclable, non-compostable, supposedly “cheap” Styrofoam trays more than once! It is time to demand for the accountability of the true cost of  Styrofoam use and call for a ban on all Styrofoam food containers.

New Yorkers produce an average of 5.5  pounds of garbage per day, or 1,880 pounds per year. Our trash is collected by polluting trucks, sorted at waste transfer stations located primarily in low-income neighborhoods, then trucked again to out-of-state landfills, threatening air quality and drinking water, while also generating significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and contributing to climate change acceleration (read Speaker Quinn’s recent statement about NYC’s Sanitation Waste Management Plan and borough equity of waste management).

NYC’s recycling costs are now cost competitive with trash exportation and incinerator costs. In several years, as export costs continue to rise, curbside trash collection is predicted to cost more than recycling (Anthony DePalma, NY Times, May 2008). Reducing school cafeteria landfill-bound trash and increasing recycling rates will save taxpayers money!

Styrofoam litter is lightweight, easily airborne, and a major source of ocean pollution, threatening birds and marine mammals.  On Earth Day 2010, NYC’s Public Advocate and public school parent, Bill DeBlasio, along with State Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh launched a statewide campaign to end all government use of Styrofoam.

California’s State Senate just voted to ban all Styrofoam food containers.  The bill will now go to the Sate Assembly (LA Times). About 50 municipalities in CA have already enacted bans. New York should follow suit and be the second state to enact a Styrofoam container ban! Please contact your state senator and representative, asking them to call for a statewide ban.

The continued use of Styrofoam trays in our public schools sends an erroneous message to the millions within our enormous public school community that single use disposables are acceptable. This completely contradicts citywide efforts to embrace waste reduction, increase recycling rates, and to shift people’s habits for the sake of reducing green house gas emissions and thus mitigating climate change!

What are the long-term health concerns of our children eating hot food directly off of Styrofoam for 13 consecutive years?

 There are no definitive studies to answer this question. Styrene, a possible human carcinogen, may leach from Styrofoam food containers into hot and acidic foods. Children may be ingesting styrene via hot school lunch.

Styrofoam food packaging is still so commonly used that, culturally, we may tend to accept it as safe, as with many other commonly used products containing chemicals. US Senators Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Schumer (NY), and others just introduced the Safe Chemicals Act 2011 legislation  in order to upgrade our outdated system of monitoring chemicals in the US.  Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental chemical exposure. Without sufficient research, we are safer not serving food to our children on any questionable food surface.

What can I do today to help eliminate Styrofoam tray use?

  • Ask your SchoolFood manager (every school has one) to use TRAYLESS TUESDAYS’ recyclable ‘paper boats” for Pizza Fridays, breakfast every day, and for all “clean” or non-saucy meals, such as sandwiches (SOS webpage on Trayelss Tuesdays)
  • Work with your school’s principal, PTA, custodial and kitchen staff to set up properly labeled recycling bins and tables in the cafeteria to ensure flip-tap stacking and proper recycling of paper boats (stay tuned for our upcoming website, for resources, ideas, and support for cafeteria waste reduction and recycling help). Please share your photos and ideas with us.


  • Ready to get rid of Styrofoam in your school today? Some 30 NYC DoE schools are self-funding the extra cost of sugar-cane (Bagasse) pulp trays.  If your school can afford to do this, SOS asks your school to pilot methods of composting these trays, such as farm partnership, and to share your knowledge and sources with all NYC schools! Please email us to share your ideas and for further support. See our blog page, ordering sugar cane trays, for details on how to order the sugarcane pulp trays for your school.
  • Start a “green team” in your school. Already have one? Start a school district wide green team and email us for help. This is a great way to share ideas and resources with neighboring schools and speed-up change in all of NYC.
  • Call or write your NY City Council Member (find them here). Encourage your friends, other parents, your school’s PTA, your co-workers and neighbors to contact their City Council members too!

Ask your NY City Council Member to support 100% elimination of Styrofoam tray use in all NYC public schools!

Ask for funding support of small pilot programs to test alternative solutions, including:

  1. Compostable trays used in conjunction with composting partnerships, such as a CSA, which will “backhaul” used compostable trays in their empty, home-bound truck; or partnerships with farms from the Green Market.
  2.  Energy and water efficient dishwashers with reusable dishes and utensils.
  3.  Recyclable Paper trays with liners.
  4. BYO– bring your own— trays and sporks (requires Department of Health and DoE SchoolFood collaboration on policy change).
  5. Implementation of a direct reward system for schools who reduce their garbage and save NYC money!
  • Visit our website, sign our mailing list, email us with questions and ideas at, and donate via the NY Charities button at We are an all volunteer staff, making much needed change. We need your help to continue reducing NYC school cafeteria garbage!

Perhaps the most important question of all:

How do we educate and change the habits and attitudes of 1.1 million students and over 100,000 DoE employees with regard to food related waste and sustainability issues?

This is the $64,000 question, brought up over and over again at City Council meetings,  sustainability conferences, PTAs, and green team meetings. I have thought about this question nearly every day for the past 2 years, since I began this passionate journey into the vortex of Styrofoam trays. Adding new curriculum to teachers’ already demanding schedule takes years. Facing the tremendous challenges of climate change, our children need this education now!

This year, I began piloting workshops of interdisciplinary, in-class and in-cafeteria education with 4th-6th graders, including Game Design for Change. This will soon become free online curriculum via our new resource website, Cafeteria Culture (CaCu), Subscribe to this blog for updates!

Our MAKE CHANGE: Cafeteria Waste Reduction workshop empowers students to be their school’s change-makers. Students and teachers are guided through inter-disciplinary methods of incorporating climate change, consumption, and school cafeteria waste issues into already existing curriculum. Emphasis is placed on critical thinking, collaboration, leadership, and real-world problem solving, using design, the ARTS, and “guerilla messaging” as tools for change.

This resource fills a void of urgently needed cafeteria waste reduction & recycling educational support for NYC pubic schools. The goal is to inspire and support teachers with lesson plans and resources, which can easily be incorporated into a math, social studies, English language, art, music, or lunch period, giving teachers knowledge on how to weave critical sustainability issues into the everyday culture of the classroom and cafeteria.

By 2030, the Mayor’s target year for a 30% carbon emissions reduction, our children will be adults, many with children of their own. Their lifelong habits regarding food and food waste are being shaped by what we teach them today.

Our public school cafeterias provide an ideal opportunity to increase action and awareness about the economic, ecological and health benefits of waste reduction, recycling, and reuse. Let’s get Styrofoam trays out of our schools!

Debby Lee Cohen (designer, teacher, activist, trash-obsessed pubic school mom)

Director, Styrofoam Out of Schools/ Cafeteria Culture and coming soon:

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Fugitive spent-Dunk-Don’t Styrofoam cup: 20 minutes of use = 500 years of wandering waste!

Good morning, New York.
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Dishwashers and Reusables versus Styrofoam Trays

NYC  produces about 50,000 tons of trash daily – —at a cost of almost $1 BILLION per year for trash collection and exportation.  Our waste, collected by high polluting trucks, is primarily sorted at waste transfer stations located in low-income neighborhoods, then trucked again to out of state landfills, threatening air quality and drinking water, while also generating significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

ONE BILLION dollars per year to get rid of our trash!  This expenditure will surely increase with rising fuel pries. Where does it all go?

Spent-Styrofoam trays are exported to Va. and Pa. having had a mere 20 minutes of  purposed life, subsequently to last for half a millennium in a landfill in someone else’s backyard – out of state,  out of mind, or out of most people’s minds.

Currently, there is only one NYC DoE school, the new Harbor School, using a (new) dishwasher and washable food service-ware. Department of Health requires the reusable trays/plates to be washed at 180 degrees. Multiply that times 850,000 school meals per day in NYC and that translates to an enormous amount of water and energy. Dishwashers are expensive to purchase and to maintain. Add the cost of labor, soap and maintenance.

Dishwashers, however, have come a long way in the last 20 years! Energy and water efficiency are key to current design innovations.

Styrofoam (polystyrene) manufacturing also requires energy  and water,  as well as petroleum and styrene, and leaves a long trail of incurring health and environmental costs after its very short lifespan as a single-use food container.

It is time to assess the true costs of Styrofoam tray use in NYC city schools versus reusable service ware (dishes and cutlery) and high-efficiency dishwashers.


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Why Styrofoam Out of Schools

3 BILLION Trays thrown away over the past 20 years!

NYC public schools have been throwing out 850,000 polystyrene (Styrofoam) trays per day (except for Tuesdays, as of March 2010), totaling 153,000,000 trays per school year, for over 18 years. This adds up to approximately 3 billion polystyrene trays since the early 1990’s when NYC schools first started using Styrofoam trays.

NYC public school students eat as many as 3 hot meals per day directly off of Styrofoam, a petroleum-based product composed of the chemicals, benzene and styrene. Polystyrene can cause cancer and is not biodegradable. It crowds our landfills and is a major source of ocean pollution.  Low income children  are disproportionately impacted.

Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS) is working collaboratively within the New York City (NYC) public school community to reduce cafeteria waste by first eliminating and then finding alternative solutions to Styrofoam trays. Our common ground, alliance-building approach, launched in spring 2009, resulted in the citywide implementation of TRAYLESS TUESDAYS which reduced polystyrene tray use by 2.4 million per month in NYC public schools as of March, 2010 (DoE press release)!

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