State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Public Schools Lead Charge for Environmental Reform

By Jacob Kaden

Credit: USDAgov
Credit: USDAgov

School lunches are about to be carried in a brand new way. According to a recent article in The New York Times, six major urban public schools systems in New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Dallas (collectively known as The Urban School Food Alliance) aim to make school lunches more sustainable. The goal of the Urban School Food Alliance is to persuade suppliers to create and sell healthier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly products by combining the purchasing power of major school systems nationwide. The first step towards achieving this goal is replacing non-biodegradable polystyrene food trays with compostable plates made from sugar cane that can be recycled right along with all of the uneaten food scraps on top of it.

New York and Miami are currently running pilot programs in select schools, with another 30 schools ready to join in the next few weeks. The goal of this program is two-fold:

  1. To keep trash out of landfills; and
  2. To save money to spend elsewhere.

If all goes according to plan, compostable plates will replace foam lunch trays for more than 2.6 million students nationwide. This could add up to 271 million plates a year that will no longer be burned as trash or make their way to landfills, which according to the Times would be “replacing enough foam trays to create a stack of plastic several hundred miles tall.” An initial test run of the program in New York City last year reduced cafeteria waste by 85 percent in eight schools.

Although foam trays are currently cheaper (4 cents per tray compared to 15 cents per compostable plate), the Alliance believes that over time, the compostable plates will become a more economical option. As Leslie Fowler, the director of nutrition support services for the Chicago school system says, “Volume is always the game changer.” Last week, the New York City Education Department opened sealed bids to supply the roughly 850,000 plates it will need for breakfast and lunch programs in about 1,200 schools. There are currently 21 manufacturers that have expressed interest in bidding and as the Times says:

If a winning bidder is chosen, the other alliance members will be able to piggyback on the contract, placing their own orders without having to navigate a separate bidding process. The call for bids names all six districts and says they must all be allowed to place orders at the same price.

The contracts for such large numbers of compostable plates will undoubtedly minimize part of the price discrepancy between foam trays and compostable plates, as compostable plate manufacturing will soon be scaled to produce much larger quantities. The alliance also believes that schools will make up the rest of the price difference and more by selling their new prized product back to farmers and gardeners everywhere. Demand for compost is high, and once the 2014-2015 school year begins, some schools may soon be in inundated by it.

While composting at citywide public schools is a new concept, composting at some colleges is by no means a new idea. A quick Google search of “compostable plates + college” yields many hits directing you to websites at colleges and universities all over the country that follow this practice. For example, Middlebury College in Vermont claims that the school composts over 300 tons of waste a year (food prep scraps, postconsumer food residuals, waxed cardboard, paper towels, napkins and food prep waste paper), which amounts to about 70 percent of Middlebury’s food waste. The compost is then used in greenhouses, gardens, and as soil amendments all across the sprawling campus.

Colby College in Maine has been composting on campus since April 2002, according to the college’s sustainability report. In the first four years of the program, the school had composted 260 tons of food waste that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Colby claims that in 2005, the college saved $10,500 by composting through electrical costs, water use, and sewage fees that would have gone to running the garbage disposals for their food waste. Although this cost savings does not include the price adjustment for compostable plates, it is easy to see why composting food waste is becoming such a trend in schools all over the country.

Implementing compostable plates is only the first step for the alliance. The next target in enriching schools systems’ nutrition and sustainability is healthier food. The alliance has begun to look into potential suppliers for large-scale purchase of antibiotic-free chicken, which could have a significant impact on human health and the environment by encouraging farmers to shift their production practices. The New York City school system has put out a request of information to national chicken suppliers in order to learn more about the production of chicken.

If the alliance succeeds, it could help change nutrition and sustainability policies across the nation. Other school districts are already asking to join the group. Because of local regulations, many schools systems across the country buy their supplies independently and do not currently buy in bulk. By combining orders, smaller school systems will be able to purchase much healthier food and supplies at a lower price. This also will save the schools time and money that was once spent on developing their own specs for food orders. Ideally, once implemented, this setup will become the template for other high food waste institutions, such as hospitals and universities, in the future.


Jacob Kaden is a student in the M.S. in Sustainability Management program at the Earth Institute.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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