STOCKTON, Calif.-At the 600-student Westwood Elementary School, part of the Lodi Unified School District, a polystyrene recycling effort has reduced waste by 20%, decreased the number of days that garbage pickup is required and saved money.
The Westwood recycling story is different from other school recycling programs. This one started with a concerned teacher. "I noticed we were using a lot of Styrofoam trays at school and that they were just getting thrown away," said Laura Rodriguez, a fourth-grade teacher at Westwood. "The custodian was stacking the trays back in the boxes they came in to reduce the amount of trash created by the trays. I said that just didn't seem right."
Because the school is part of the federal Provision II program, students are given free breakfast, so many students eat both breakfast and lunch at school each day, which means as many as 1,200 trays a day could potentially be thrown away. Rodriguez researched possibilities for recycling the polystyrene trays but had no luck.
Last winter, Rodriguez was driving around her neighborhood when she noticed a sign outside a local recycling plant. "The sign said Styrofoam recycling done here and had a picture of a cup," Rodriguez said. "I got one of our trays from school and took it to the plant and asked if they could recycle them and they said they could if they were clean enough."
This sparked Rodriguez into action. She contacted her principal and worked with the school's custodians and foodservice manager, Brenda Eckart, to work out a recycling program.
The students have always had a dismissal system for trash disposal after they finish their meals. When students are finished eating, they put their eating utensils in the air. The principal selects each table to line up to throw away trash. Before the recycling program began, the students would throw away trash and leftover food and then stack the trays, which the custodian would put back into their shipping boxes to throw into the Dumpster.
To be able to recycle the trays, the students would have to add a cleaning step to the dismissal system. Now the students use their utensils and napkins to clean off food particles. If the tray can be cleaned enough to be OK for recycling, the students stack the trays. Rodriguez takes the trays to the recycling plant each week.
"We had student council representatives involved," she says. "They trained the kids and gave them tips on how to get the ranch dressing off and if they hit it twice on the trash they could get all the crumbs off. The student council representatives took turns training the rest of the student body the first week to let them know if the trays were clean enough to go in the clean pile. We gave them feedback and motivation until it was really easy for everyone."
Rodriguez and cafeteria manager Eckart had a goal of reducing the amount of trash so that the Dumpsters only needed to be picked up four times a week instead of five. After several weeks of the tray recycling program, enough trash was diverted from the Dumpsters that one day of trash pick up was no longer needed. Rodriguez said that between 90% and 95% of trays are recycled daily.
"It took a while for the district," she says. "We said we had been doing this for two weeks and that they didn't need to send the truck out. The principal said do it for 30 more days and then call me back because she didn't want to cancel the truck if it wasn't going to happen. We did it for 30 more days and called them back and now we only have four pick ups."
Warren Sun, director of foodservice for the district, said that the recycling program at Westwood is something he would like to see in other schools. Only the elementary schools use polystyrene trays. Sun said that because the Westwood program is run primarily through a volunteer effort, the expansion of the program to other schools will be dependent on administration and staff from the other schools.
"Reducing Styrofoam is an overall goal," Sun said. "We want to be an environmentally friendly operation. We would like to expand the Styrofoam recycling program to other schools, but again, volunteer efforts are what keeps this program running at Westwood."
As part of the department's goal to remove polystyrene, Sun is testing different biodegradable trays to see if the option is economically viable. Until then, the Styrofoam recycling program at Westwood continues.
"It's been drilled into us for decades that Styrofoam is bad," Rodriguez said. "We're lucky because there are only three centers in California that have the capability to do this and one is right by my house."