Executive Summary

This toolkit is designed to help your school make the transition from harmful single-use food service ware (FSW) to healthier, more sustainable alternatives. Creating healthy and sustainable school cafeterias requires a closer look at more than just the food that is being served. We should also consider food packaging and what meals are served on, in addition to what behaviors are being taught and normalized.

Above all, we suggest that schools consider reusable FSW products first.

Reusables eliminate many of the concerns associated with single-use FSW, such as exposure to toxic chemicals (including PFAS and styrene), increased waste production, and some recyclability or compostability issues. However, not all reusables are created equal and each material type will have different lifecycle impacts. Nevertheless, lifecycle studies indicate that reusable products are typically the best choice from an environmental perspective.

While reusables may not be an immediate option for all schools, it is important to prioritize sustainability and health. We encourage schools to look for ways to eliminate single-use products wherever possible and switch to healthier single-use options in the interim. CEH has heard from school district staff, teachers, and families from across the country who are alarmed by the growing amount of disposables in their schools, the toxic chemicals found in these products, and the impacts that they have on our health and environment-- which have only been compounded by the pandemic. While there is no “one-size fits all” approach, school districts can learn and benefit from the research and experience of others. Many school districts have channeled their concern into action and are ditching their disposable foodware for reusables.

  • Some districts started their journey by piloting reusables in one or two schools, while others were able to transition all of their schools simultaneously.
  • Other districts that were not able to immediately transition infrastructure to support reusables, incorporated these changes into their long-term construction and renovation plans.

These success stories are an inspiration and provide a wealth of information for school districts that want to foster a culture of environmental stewardship in their own communities.

When looking at single-use options, it is critical to consider what waste management options are available in your area. If your schools have access to a commercial composting facility that accepts FSW, switching from plastic single-use FSW to compostable single-use FSW could greatly reduce your waste impacts. There is a plethora of fiber-based single-use FSW that may appear to be compostable, but some of these items still include toxic PFAS chemicals as a grease barrier which can be harmful to health, or a plastic lining which is detrimental for compost. This guide will help you navigate some of the purchasing choices you can make in your FSW.

And it can be complicated! As we have learned with BPA and more recently with PFAS chemicals, the public currently lacks information about the toxicity of ingredients being used in everyday products - especially products like FSW that are in direct contact with food. There is a need for transparency about ingredients in FSW so we can move the market to safer chemistry - both for single-use, as well as reusables. Purchasers have the ability to create transparency by asking manufacturers and suppliers what ingredients are in their products and whether they have been adequately assessed for toxicity and safety. CEH has created a tool that can help you with that - GreenScreen Certified will help you identify safer single-use FSW and we will be working on a certification for reusables next. Stay tuned!

Also included in this toolkit are:

  • Case studies of schools that have already transitioned to reusables or are on their journey towards healthier options;
  • Information regarding what is currently known about the toxicity of various FSW material types;
  • A snapshot of general product pricing information;
  • Dishwashing equipment suggestions;
  • And more!

With this information, you will be equipped to create a transition plan that fits your school district’s needs.

Benefits of Adopting Healthier, Safer Reusables & Single-use FSW

Increased Student Health

Potential Lower Costs

Reduced Waste Generation

Lower Natural Resource Impact

Support School Lunch Culture and Student Voice