OHS Needs to Say No To Styrofoam

Osbourn, unlike every other school in MCPS, uses styrofoam trays in the cafeteria. With the load of students served daily at roughly 2300, it makes this issue one that shouldn’t be ignored.

Styrofoam is a polystyrene foam (type of plastic) that is known for being very light, airy, and highly insulating. But, unlike plastic, styrofoam is hard to recycle and takes 500 years to decompose. This leaves millions of styrofoam products to be dumped into landfills to stay.

One reason for Osbourn being an active styrofoam user ultimately comes down to the significant student population.

“The current volume of students we serve at OHS is over 1100+ and makes it very challenging to wash and reuse the trays in a timely manner,” said Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Montoya Jackson.

Another considerable factor is the financial support needed.

“Likely for financial reasons [is why Osbourn uses styrofoam],” Jackson explained. “A number of factors go into deciding which products to order, including price and availability,” she added.

Styrofoam trays are priced cheaply and work efficiently for students’ lunch schedule, but putting styrofoam’s impact into perspective is important. Styrofoam is essentially toxic for the environment, given it is non-biodegradable. Many fast-food chains have already been banned from the usage of polystyrene products. Virginia has also put in place future laws that will ban styrofoam containers in small and large businesses (effective 2023 for large and 2025 for small). 

So what can Osbourn do to help follow in the footsteps of sustainability? OHS needs to get to a starting point of transitioning to an alternative material. Some options could be paper, plant, or bamboo fiber, and ideally reusable hard plastic. 

We should also consider the benefits of investing in dishwashers and hard plastic trays. It would overall help save money in the long run, despite its pricey initial cost, since the need for constant weekly orders would decrease.

Prince William, Fairfax, and Fauquier Counties all use hard plastic trays in their high school cafeterias. This sets the standard that Osbourn’s capability shouldn’t be far from possible.

“Before COVID we were using compostable trays, which was a better ‘middle ground’ of not using Styrofoam and investing in reusable trays. When the pandemic hit we could not get those trays regularly due to cost and supply chain issues,” Jackson explained.

The U.S. COVID-19 public health emergency has officially ended (as of May 11, 2023) and improvements in the supply chains are being predicted, meaning bringing back the compostable trays in years to come could be a reasonable possibility.

The current styrofoam trays found in our cafeteria are on average 10 cents per tray, while compostable ones are found at around 18 cents per tray. The price can add up, but at the expense of our environment, it should be worth it.

“To say that sustainable materials like cardboard are more expensive than polystyrene or plastic, I think, doesn’t show the whole picture. We’ve had almost 100 years of continuous investment in and prioritization of plastic. Of course, it’s cheaper, that was the goal! If we instead choose to prioritize sustainable materials in our everyday life, consumer costs will go down,” conservation scientist, Lee Shepard said.

“The costs to human health, animal wellbeing, and environmental conservation far exceed an extra 20 cents for a to-go container,” Shepard added.