Lunch goes green at all Wake County schools, thanks to new, eco-friendly trays

Wake County school cafeterias are getting greener, with the school district becoming the latest in the U.S. to ditch plastic foam trays in favor of more environmentally friendly ones.

All 187 Wake County schools are making the switch this month to molded fiber trays that are made 100 percent from recycled material and are 100 percent compostable. Wake school officials say the district, which serves an average of 53,600 lunches a day, is scrapping polystyrene trays because they’re made of petroleum — a non-sustainable and heavy polluting resource.

In addition, district officials say the old trays were slow to break down, aren’t biodegradable and were hard to recycle. The polystyrene trays, known as Styrofoam to most people, had to be free of food contaminants to be recyclable.

“We’re making the change districtwide because it’s better for the environment,” said Lisa Luten, a school district spokeswoman.

Wake’s switch is exciting news for Every Tray Counts, a local group that’s been encouraging North Carolina schools to abandon the use of polystyrene trays. Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Durham Public Schools and Chatham County Schools have already made the switch and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools may too, according to Sue Scope, executive director of Every Tray Counts.

Scope hopes other North Carolina school districts will emulate Wake.

“I’m hoping Wake County is the flagship district, as well as Charlotte,” Scope said. “Wake County is very significant. It’s where the capital is. It’s a great district.”

Polystyrene is used in many kinds of food-storage containers. But due to environmental concerns, cities like New York have banned polystyrene and some school districts have stopped using them for cafeteria trays.

Luten said that Wake’s efforts to switch to fiber trays had been complicated by how they’re more expensive. School district child nutrition programs are supposed to be financially self-supporting.

The new fiber trays cost 6.1 cents each compared to 3.5 cents each for the polystyrene trays. But Luten said Wake was able to afford the switch using savings in the district’s kitchen plastics and metal contract.

Wake has stopped short of requiring schools to compost their trays and food waste.

In contrast, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools says it diverts about 250,000 pounds of compostable waste from landfills each year. Every Tray Counts started working with Chapel Hill-Carrboro in 2013.

Scope is hopeful that other Wake schools will start composting.

“Using the trays is great, but we have to match it with composting to get the full benefit to reduce landfill use and to turn all that food into many more benefits,” she said.

Every Tray Counts has worked with Kingswood Elementary in Cary since August 2017, paying for the first compostable trays used at the school. Students serve as helpers each day, sorting the compostable trash, which Scope says teaches them to be good stewards of what they’re using and throwing away.

“If we just throw all our compost into the trash that takes up a lot of the Earth and it hurts the Earth’s environment,” said Alana Andrady, a Kingswood student.

The compost is used at Kingswood to plant and and grow food in the school’s garden.

“It’s kind of amazing to think that old wasted food can be made into something beautiful, into new foods like tomatoes,” said Fabian Avellaneda Mendible, a Kingswood student.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.