Ditching Disposables: A Toolkit for Healthier Foodware in K-12 Schools
Lifecycle Considerations for Reusable FSW
Reusable foodware creates much less waste than single-use options because it can be used thousands of times over the course of its life. The US EPA defines “reusable products” as goods that have a lifespan of three or more years while the San Francisco Department of the Environment defines reusable foodware as products designed to be washed and sanitized at high temperatures in a commercial dishwasher at least 1,000 times.1,2 The School Nutrition Foundation analyzed multiple serving systems in school cafeterias and found that reusable compartment trays used the least amount of energy, produced the least amount of solid wastes, and were the least expensive.3 Across seven schools, they examined systems that use a combination of single-use products and reusables (single-use trays/bowls/plates carried on a flat reusable tray) and systems that only used reusable compartment trays. Systems that used only reusables required 20 to 56 percent less energy and produced 31 to 65 percent less solid waste for the same number of meals depending on the efficiency of the dishwashers. Once a reusables system is set up, the life-cycle impacts are minimal. The only energy use comes from producing fuel and detergent to run the dishwasher and end-of-life management for detergent packaging. Further, the School Nutrition Foundation study found that the total cost for serving meals on reusable compartment trays is about 25% less expensive than serving on single-use foodware carried on a reusable, flat tray. High-efficiency dishwashers further reduced costs by $1,300 for every 100,000 meals served. As a school converts from disposable food ware to reusables, sorting recyclables and compostables becomes easier for students and staff, thereby reducing the likelihood that recyclables become contaminated to such an extent that they need to be landfilled. As waste sorting becomes easier, students and staff can become advocates for reusables, recycling and composting in their wider community.
Plastics - An Overview of Persistence and Toxicity
Many single-use FSW products are generally made out of a variety of long polymer chains called “plastic.” These plastics are derived from chemical by-products extracted from oil, natural gas, or coal.4 Plastics are considered to be “persistent pollutants”.5 The durable chemical structure of these plastics is what makes their health and waste impacts so problematic. Toxic chemical additives, such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, are cause for serious concern in regards to human exposure and negative health effects. In spite of being marketed as recyclable, single-use plastic FSW creates massive amounts of pollution worldwide. This is due both to recycling facilities not being able to handle many FSW plastics (the utensils are too small to go through the sorting), there is no market for a variety of FSW plastics (particularly different colored plastics), and mixed plastic recycling often mixes recyclable plastic with non-recyclable plastics and relies on the consumer to know the difference.
Plastic Recycling Considerations
The plastic products that we put in our recycling bins are not actually recycled as much as we are led to believe. Common knowledge would tell us that most of our discarded plastic is transformed into new products, but the reality is that the vast majority of our plastic waste is either incinerated, landfilled, or discarded in the environment.6 In 2018, of the 35.7 million tons of plastic that was thrown away in the US, only 8.66% (3.09 million tons) were recovered to be recycled according to the US EPA. 75.59% (26.97 million tons) was landfilled and 15.75% (5.62 million tons) was incinerated to produce energy.7 Until 2017, the United States exported more than half of its 3 million tons recyclable plastic waste to China to be processed every year. However, much of this plastic was either contaminated with food and dirt or not actually recyclable, and was ultimately landfilled or incinerated. Due to serious environmental and health concerns, China no longer imports most types of recyclable materials.8 Additional information on the health and environmental impacts of plastics through their lifecycle can be found here.9
The Microplastics Problem
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic (≤ 5mm) that are either intentionally manufactured or are a by-product of the massive amounts of plastic goods we use and discard.10 Scientists estimate that the average person ingests approximately a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week.11 Microplastics easily proliferate into the environment where they threaten life in our oceans and contaminate our soil.12 They have been found in even the most remote regions of the Earth, ranging from the deepest parts of the oceans to some of the tallest mountains.13,14 In addition to all the harmful chemicals found in plastics, they also absorb toxic contaminants and pollutants from their surrounding environment, increasing their toxicity.15 In the ocean, microplastics travel up the food chain, from plankton all the way up to whales, because they don’t degrade once ingested.16 Microplastics hurt aquatic creatures like turtles and birds by blocking their digestive tracts and altering feeding behavior. This stunts their growth and limits their reproductive output. With stomachs stuffed with plastic, many animals starve to death. In soil, microplastics also have been found to affect plant growth and development. A 2019 study found that seeds planted in soil that contained microplastics were less likely to germinate and more likely to have stunted growth.17 This emerging science is concerning evidence that microplastics may disrupt soil functions that are necessary for crop production and the survival of natural ecosystems.
Appendices and Citations
Continue learning by following the links within this toolkit, which lead to a variety of resources including those of external affiliates. For more information or to contribute to the toolkit, email email@example.com or visit CEH.org/foodware.
11. World Wide Fund
13. Geochemical Perspectives
14. Environ. Sci. Technol.
15. FACTS Report