May 21, 2018
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Portland schools eliminate styrofoam use after saving $50,000 in new recycling initiative

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Riverton Elementary School fifth-grader Izabella Tucci is proud of her classmates’ efforts to recycle and compost cafeteria waste, contributing to a systemwide program that has reduced trash by more than 50 percent and is expected to save the public schools tens of thousands of dollars.

But something still bothered her: the styrofoam trays. The system uses 450,000 one-use-only styrofoam lunch trays each year.

“If you buried a piece of styrofoam and dug it up 500 years later, it would pretty much be the same,” Tucci said during a news conference Tuesday morning at King Middle School. The petroleum-based material takes generations to decompose, she said.

Then Superintendent James Morse dropped the morning’s bombshell. In an announcement that caught most in attendance by surprise, Morse said the district will use the $50,000 saved from reduced garbage handling costs to eliminate styrofoam trays from school lunchrooms starting next fall.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic said the abolishment of styrofoam from Portland Public Schools paves the way for the council to take up a citywide ban on the material, as the school district’s use of the trays has been a lingering impediment to such an effort.

“We could find no other system of this size doing what we’re doing,” said Morse of the wide-scale recycling and composting efforts, adopted by students and faculty members alike. “Our intention was never to cut our budget by $50,000. It has always been our intention to reinvest that money into our ongoing sustainability efforts.”

Morse said the school board is scheduled to consider codifying the district’s sustainability strategies in policy language in August. The recycling and composting aspects of the effort, which began in earnest at the beginning of the current school year, already have reduced cafeteria garbage by between 50 and 80 percent and has diverted more than 30 tons of food waste from Dumpsters, school officials announced Tuesday.

In September, the school will turn to recyclable Maine-made paperboard trays, then ultimately transition to reusable trays.

The push to recycle more in the schools came about three years ago, Morse said, when two parents approached him about a month after he was hired as Portland’s superintendent.

“They said, ‘How come there isn’t more recycling in the schools?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve only been here a month,’” Morse recalled.

But he found out, calling facilities Coordinator Douglas Sherwood and food service Director Ron Adams together with parents Martha Sheils and Susan Webster to discuss the issue. They hatched an aggressive plan to educate students and teachers about what to recycle and what to compost, school by school, and form student groups at each site to serve as stewards for the program.

“This change is a change of habit for life,” Sheils said Tuesday. “From pre-kindergarteners … to 12th-graders, as they go through the system it will be easy. They won’t have to think about what’s compost, what’s recyclable and what’s truly trash.”

And, as Morse noted, there is still room to compost and recycle more than the schools are.

In Portland High School, for instance, sophomore Environment Club member Sarah Hesselink said the school has reduced its garbage output from 80 bags each week to about 44. But she said a recent “trash audit” — in which club members pawed through trash bags to identify the items therein — showed that still “90 percent of what we found in our trash could have gone into the other bins.”

Also in attendance at the event Tuesday was Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and student recycling leaders from Deering High School and King Middle School.

“It’s really evident that Portland Public Schools turned a corner this year,” Webster said. “It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty. The fact that we’re hearing the words ‘Zero Waste’ in Portland Public Schools is encouraging, and that’s something we’re striving for.”

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