Opinion: Dartmouth schools need to replace their styrofoam trays

Feb 13, 2024

To the editor:

In the midst of pandemic paranoia, we believed the COVID-19 spread across surfaces. To prevent students from getting sick as they returned to in-person learning, many schools swapped their reusable, washable lunch trays for Styrofoam trays. Nowadays we know COVID spreads through respiratory droplets, not by touching surfaces. As a result, New Bedford High and GNB Voc-Tech switched back to reusable trays as schools rolled back their pandemic-era safety measures. 

Dartmouth hasn’t. And it’s making their students sick. 

According to research published by Rutgers University, Styrofoam is made from fossil fuels and styrene, a hydrocarbon formed from the chemical benzene. The US Environmental Protection Agency found that when ingested, styrene and benzene can cause drowsiness, headaches, tremors, anemia, depression, and leukemia. These chemicals also affect kidney function and female reproductive organs. 

Dartmouth High senior Ian Barreira noted that “students go to school roughly 180 days a year for 12 years. That means they eat off Styrofoam trays for at max 2,160 days over the course of their time in school.” Ingesting a small amount of styrene every day can negatively impact your nervous system, endocrine system, bloodstream, and chromosomes over the long term. 

Styrofoam is advertised as a container that keeps food hot. Dunkin’ coffee, for example, came in a foam cup before the company switched to paper cups in 2020. However, the Green Dining Alliance, an organization that helps restaurants become more sustainable, found that exposure to hot temperatures causes styrene and benzene to leach into food. These hazardous chemicals are leaching into the hot lunches students eat every day. The idea of a child getting cancer from their lunch trays should be enough of a reason to switch to reusable trays. 

Current Dartmouth students aren’t the only victims of these trays’ dangerous effects. Styrofoam does not decompose. It just splits into tinier pieces. According to the Society of Environmental Journalists, a non-profit that specializes in environmental reporting, it takes 500 years for Styrofoam to completely break apart. That means, if a generation lasts about 25 years, Dartmouth students born 20 generations from now will still be living with the trays we threw away this year (so, my grandchildren, preceded by 19 “greats”). These tiny pieces pollute our environment when they escape into our town’s streets, parks, and shorelines, where land and sea animals eat them. These animals can suffer from the same health problems styrene and benzene ingestion causes in humans.

“Dartmouth High School has a population of around 1,000 students, most of which eat lunch from the school,” junior Kalisa Pomfret said. She is one of the 104 DHS students (and two teachers) who’ve signed a petition to replace the Styrofoam trays. “When you think about an approximate 1,000 Styrofoam trays being thrown away per day, in addition to all of the other waste that is created from non-eco friendly or non-biodegradable materials the schools in our district use, the amount of daily waste produced is incredible.” 

There are zero benefits to Styrofoam except that it’s cheap to purchase, and that’s a relief for a district trying to prevent a budget crisis. However, each school buys a unit of Styrofoam trays each week - that adds up! If we switch to reusable trays, the district will initially pay a sizable cost to purchase the trays and repair the dormant dishwashers lingering in our cafeterias - but not all of it has to come out of our pocket. New Bedford High successfully applied for a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to get funding to repair their old dishwashers. As for the trays, the organization Plastic Free Restaurants subsidizes every single penny schools need to purchase stainless steel trays. (Before the pandemic, Dartmouth used reusable trays made out of plastic. Hot food and hot dishwasher water leaches chemicals from plastic the same way it does Styrofoam, so stainless steel is a much safer material.) After the district pays the initial costs, they end up saving money because they don’t have to buy new trays over and over and over again. 

The district may also argue that schools don’t have enough staff to wash all the trays. When we had reusable trays before the pandemic, the elementary schools recruited student volunteers to help manage the dishwasher. Compared to older students, elementary schoolers are more enthusiastic about volunteering just because an exclusive job and the title of “cafeteria helper” feels like a special privilege to them. The middle school and high school can motivate students to volunteer by rewarding them with National Honor Society service hours. In this case, both the students and the budget benefit. 

There are many problems with Dartmouth schools’ cafeterias. As a sophomore at the high school, I witness these issues firsthand every day. You never get used to seeing four giant trash cans stuffed with pounds of food waste and dozens of flimsy white health hazards every single lunch period. It’s disgusting and disheartening. As junior Kalisa Pomfret said, ditching “Styrofoam trays for a more eco-friendly option would be a strong first step to reducing tons of the waste we produce each school year.” 

Senior Alaina Strozik believes making the switch would be one of the most powerful lessons our schools could teach. “Dartmouth Public Schools have a great opportunity to dramatically reduce non-recyclable waste as well as teach students about the importance of sustainability and taking care of our environment,” she said. “If the district takes advantage of this, they would set a wonderful example - not only in the Dartmouth community, but as well as neighboring towns.”

There will of course be obstacles, but there are plenty of solutions to the challenges that will arise. If New Bedford and Voc made it work, why can’t we? If we did this successfully before COVID, why can’t we do it again? “It’s hard” isn’t an excuse when students’ health and safety are at risk. The only way the district will make a change, though, is if all Dartmouth residents pressure them to switch to reusable trays. This isn’t just a problem that harms students; it harms our environment, our neighbors, and you. As senior Ian Barreira said, “Change needs to be made and it needs to be made fast.”

Annica Dupre, Dartmouth