Foam for thought.

Yes, that’s right, not food for thought, foam for thought. Let’s think about foam, that is polystyrene, AKA styrofoam, the stuff that trays are made of in my kids’ cafeteria.

Back in my day, cafeteria trays were made out of hard plastic and reused daily – after a nice run through a sanitizing dishwasher of course. 

In my county, Montgomery County, a supposedly well educated, progressive,  wealthy county, every day styrofoam trays are being used in school cafeterias.

Then where do they go and what happens?

They end up going into an incinerator letting off toxic fumes, and hmmm… we can only guess how this affects the health of those breathing these fumes. 

Sign the petition to replace foam trays. 

Let me get this straight, isn’t society supposed to be moving to  “greener” solutions? Were we really doing better in the 70’s and 80’s? 

DC and Baltimore are putting MoCo to shame

In neighboring Washington, DC they prohibit the use of styrofoam, instead they use compostable trays or reusable trays & a dishwasher.  Are you telling me, that DC is greener and more responsible than us? Really? 

Even Baltimore is well ahead of Montgomery County when it comes to caring for the environment. They collaborated on a composting program with the EPA and John’s Hopkins: 

The pilot schools began separating their food waste as part of their daily routine and as a result of this pilot; participating schools diverted 34,525 pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators to be recycled into compost. 

Uh-oh, are we disempowering kids in Montgomery County one styrofoam tray at a time?

In looking into this issue, I found a swell group of kids, the Young Activist Club, right here in Montgomery County that started tackling this issue in spring 2008. They put up a website; they created a petition; they raised 10,000 dollars.  Their preference is to replace foam trays with a dishwasher and reusable trays. 

They have been more successful in getting local businesses to go foam free. Kudos for that.  


Has anything changed with the school system though? Not so much. 

Don’t we want to empower kids so that they feel like they can have a positive impact? 

Montgomery County School Board, are you out there? Are you listening? I really don’t think this issue is going to go away. 

The young activists even got coverage in this Washington Post article Dec. 8th, 2012.

Despite the deaf ear of their elders in power, I’m glad to see a group of persistent and creative kids out there like the Young Activist Club. Check out the YouTUBE video they made recently. 


Good news:  some wins against foam trays:

Some big school districts have pulled their purchasing power together to get the price down on compostable trays. Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Orlando, Chicago and New York City —  formed the Urban School Food Alliance –-  to boost the schools’ purchasing power in the private sector. Compostable trays can cost as much as 15 cents a unit, compared to about 4 cents a unit for foam. 

The alliance put in a bid for 271 million compostable trays – and the price came down to 4 cents a tray. Score! 

Lunch is served on compostable trays at P.S. 89 in Manhattan. (Topher Forhecz)
Lunch is served on compostable trays at P.S. 89 in Manhattan. (Topher Forhecz)

So what can I do?

Gee, glad you asked… I just started a petition that goes to the Montgomery County Board of Education and Superintendant:

  Sign the petition to replace foam trays.  


And the “like” the new Facebook Page. Thanks! 


The Health Hazards, in case you were wondering:

The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam.

U.S. National Toxicology Program has described styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”.

  • An EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste, including greenhouse gas and harmful to the ozone layer.
  • Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems.
  • These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.

Foam’s environmental and health impacts are bad and growing   (bullet points are from Cleanwater Action’s site)

  • What isn’t collected by street sweepers, manual litter collection, and voluntary  clean-ups gets widely distributed in the environment
  • Birds, fish, filter feeding marine organisms, and other animals mistake it for food. Many seabirds are dying of starvation with stomachs full of plastic
  • recent study of fish in the Pacific Ocean found that 36% of the fish sampled had ingested small plastic debris, including foam
  • Plastic debris is a vector for pollutants that bioaccumulate in the food chain. Persistent organic chemicals, like PCBs and PAHs, get absorbed onto surface of plastic debris
  • When ingested by fish, toxic coated plastics can pollute the human food chain

Worker and consumer health is also at risk.
(bullet points are from Cleanwater Action’s site)

  • Polystyrene foam is manufactured with a monomer called Styrene, a carcinogen, according to the federal government
  • Styrene readily leaches out of foam containers into food and beverages
  • EPA studies conducted in the 1980s showed that 100% of Americans have Styrene in their bodies
  • Styrene is used in all kinds of applications, including injecting it directly into foods to preserve their shelf life, we are all exposed without our knowledge

Sign the petition to replace foam trays. 



References and resources:

The compostable lunch trays that were used in the Baltimore City trial mentioned above came from:–the-foam



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