Throughout the cafeteria at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring on Friday lay the first signs of a change coming to Montgomery County Public Schools — brown paper trays.
The trays made their debut at the middle school on April 28 and school system officials say the goal is to switch out the plastic foam trays now found in school cafeterias around the county for the thin, cardboard-like trays that it can recycle by the beginning of the next academic year.
Marla Caplon, director of food and nutrition services for the school system, said the school system has been looking for years to make a switch to recyclable trays.
“It’s always kind of been on the front burner to do that but cost was a prohibiting factor,” she said.
The plastic trays, which are made of polystyrene, can be recycled but there is no company near the county that could collect them, Caplon said. The distance of companies who could have recycled them would have made prices too steep, she said.
After coming across other recyclable options with unmanageable price tags, Caplon said, the school system found an affordable option in the paper tray that costs about 4.27 cents — about 1 cent more than a plastic tray.
Based on a hypothetical purchase of about 14 million trays for one year, the new paper trays would cost about $598,000 — about $140,000 more than their plastic counterparts, according to Caplon.
Caplon said that, with the 4.27-cent tray, the school system has “at least one avenue that is cost effective.” The system is still seeking other affordable options through a bid process.
The tray will be recyclable as long as it doesn’t get a significant amount of food on it, Caplon said, citing the example of spaghetti and meat sauce.
Francis Scott Key is serving as the pilot school for the new trays.
Rather than use the plastic trays, the middle school students had forgone trays completely for several years until the paper trays’ introduction.
Yolanda Stanislaus, principal at Francis Scott Key, said the new trays match the school system’s larger focus on environmental stewardship.
“When Marla brought it up to us, we jumped on it immediately,” Stanislaus said.
The reaction from students as they ate lunch on Friday was mixed: some focused on how they see the trays helping the environment while others wanted sturdier trays.
Jeannie Tene, a seventh-grader at the school, said she thinks the trays could help the environment but saw her peers throwing them in the trash instead of recycling them.
“They look really cheap, and they’re weak,” she said.
Jaylen Jobshode, an eighth-grader who used to be a member of the school’s student recycling team, said he thinks the trays are useful and environmentally friendly.
“It’s pretty awesome what they’re doing,” he said.
Anna Brookes, a seventh-grader at Takoma Park Middle School, has advocated with other students in the Young Activist Club for the end of polystyrene trays in county schools.
The trays, the young activists say, are bad for the environment and potentially students’ health.
The Takoma Park group has unsuccessfully requested that the county school board allow them to test out a dishwasher and reusable trays at Piney Branch Elementary School.
Brookes said she thinks the reusable trays would be a better alternative to plastic than the recyclable paper trays.
“Getting rid of Styrofoam is still a major step,” she said.