School sweet on new trays – P.S. 154 trashes Styrofoam in favor of sugar cane

By Michèle De Meglio

A Brooklyn elementary school is going green. P.S. 154 in Windsor Terrace is the first New York City public school to stop using Styrofoam lunch trays and start using sugar cane trays instead. “It’s great,” said Gina de la Chesnaye, whose daughter is in kindergarten at P.S. 154, 1625 11th Avenue. “It’s step one in a long process. Hopefully we can get all the schools in the city to do the same,” she continued. The switch to Styrofoam is being made because of concerns for the environment, as well as students’ health. The trays are not biodegradable so they end up sitting in landfills, adding to the overwhelming mounds of garbage. Unlike paper, Styrofoam resists compacting so it remains in its original form and occupies more landfill space. That’s problematic because the city has run out of landfill space and is now shipping trash to other states. City Department of Sanitation reps have acknowledged that landfill space is limited and are promoting recycling initiatives. There are also concerns about the safety of Styrofoam lunch trays because of the belief that chemicals from the Styrofoam may infect the food. “There are some studies that say Styrofoam, if it comes into contact with any hot foods or hot liquids, the styrene can migrate into the food,” de la Chesnaye said. “Styrofoam is so bad because it’s made from petroleum,” said City Councilmember Bill de Blasio. “The components within it are dangerous to human health.” The Councilman noted that Styrofoam contains benzene, which is a toxic chemical. The sugar cane trays are easier on the environment, as they’re biodegradable and “made of a safe product,” de Blasio said. Last summer, de Blasio introduced a bill to ban the use of Styrofoam in restaurants and by city agencies, including the Department of Education (DOE). Public schools use 850,000 Styrofoam breakfast and lunch trays a day. Each year, the DOE uses more than 153 million trays. The DOE has been sympathetic to parents demanding a ban of Styrofoam, de Blasio explained, but department officials say they don’t have the money to make a switch to sugar cane trays. “Their simple message is it’s too costly to switch,” de Blasio said. But, “we have to be careful not to put money before the health of our children and our environment.” If all city agencies and restaurants used cartons and lunch trays made from sugar cane fiber instead of Styrofoam, the price of sugar cane would decrease, de Blasio said. “The new sugar cane trays are becoming more affordable and the bigger the market for them, the cheaper the price will get,” he said. The business community around P.S. 154 and local residents are footing the bill for the sugar cane trays. The community will benefit from the switch because the school plans to implement a composting program. “All of the trays actually get put into composting bins outside of the school,” de la Chesnaye explained. “I’d like to see it where the community could use the compost for their own gardens.”