Arlington Hts. schools find way to break down Styrofoam lunch trays

Students at Westgate School in Arlington Heights know the drill: they throw garbage in one can, recyclables in another, and their Styrofoam trays in a third receptacle.

In less than three weeks, students across Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 have incorporated the procedure into their lunchroom routine, even if it means wiping off excess food.

"It's a little effort, that makes a giant difference in the world," says fifth grader Natalie Knaack.

She and two of her classmates served as "garbage helpers" on Wednesday helping to "whack and stack" the Styrofoam trays. One of them, fourth grader Erin McHugh of Arlington Heights, even went Dumpster diving to retrieve any trays erroneously thrown away.

"It's good," says fifth grader Dennis O'Neill of Arlington Heights, "so they don't end up in a landfill somewhere."

Officials estimate that on any given day, more than 2,000 students across District 25 purchase their lunch, and consequently use a Styrofoam tray. There are no recycling facilities in the region served by the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County that recycle Styrofoam.

What's more, the trays are non-biodegradable and literally would be sitting in a landfill forever taking up space.

"It's been an issue for years, of how to dispose of the trays," says Coletta Hines-Newell, food service director for District 25, which also prepares meals for Mount Prospect Elementary District 57 and River Trails Elementary District 26.

She says the district looked into using reusable Fiberglass trays, but it would have meant installing a dishwashing system in each building to sanitize them. They also looked into products made to break down the trays on-site, but that too, was prohibitively expensive, Hines-Newell says.

Last spring, she attended a meeting with the ecology chairmen of the individual school PTA committees. Its members had located a Chicago area company, Dart Container Corp., in North Aurora, which would break down and recycle the trays.

In order to get a visual of how much Styrofoam was headed to the landfills, students and PTA members started making a stack of trays used over just four days. It stood more than nine feet tall, or nearly to the ceiling.

"At first, PTA moms would go at lunchtime to help get the ball rolling," says Westgate ecology co-chairwoman Liana Allison of Arlington Heights, "but now the kids monitor and self-manage the process."

The stacks of trays from each school are stored in a truck owned by the district that used to haul lawn mowing equipment. Every three weeks, Hines-Newell says, they transport the stacks to Dart, where they are densified by sucking all of the air out of the Styrofoam, before they are recycled into products, such as picture frames and rulers.

District 25 officials believe their Styrofoam tray recycling program is one of the only ones in the area.

"It's a pilot program, but I think it's going to work," Hines-Newell says. "I've spent more than 20 years in school food service, including 12 years here, and we've always used Styrofoam trays. This is the first workable solution we've come up with.

"There are a lot of logistics," she adds, "but with the kids cooperating and working with the building maintenance staff, I think we can make it work."

Josh Maher, 9, of Arlington Heights dumps the rest of his food into the garbage. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer