A large barrier preventing many schools from instituting reusables is the lack of ability to clean those reusables. Dishwashing Machines (the actual machine) and the Dishwasher(s) (the person(s) who uses the machine to sanitize the dishes) are needed to make reusables a reality. Many older schools had dishwashing machines when they were constructed. More recently built schools do not have a place for dishwashing machines and were designed to use single-use items. Before you bring in new dishwashing machines and reusables, see what your school or district has done about dishwashing machines and reusables in the past. If you are considering bringing in a new or renovating an existing dishwashing machine, consider the following: Dishwashing machine options

  • Under the Counter
  • Door Type
  • Conveyor Type

Number of meals per day----> Number of dish racks per day Onsite versus off site Alternative options

  • Three sink system
  • Reduce FSW reliance (utensils and napkins on demand, no sporks packets, plastic baskets, and finger foods.)


Setting up a system with reusable FSW instead of single-use FSW may include reallocation of staff hours, staff working additional hours, or hiring additional staff to support the operation. Finding ways to prioritize efficiency and eliminate redundant or unnecessary tasks can help reduce overall staff time. There are examples from school districts across the U.S. that have switched from non-reusables to reusables, resulting in less time needed for waste management and restocking single-use serviceware inventory. Since school food service staff are some of the lowest paid positions in school districts and often not full time, in addition to some staff holding multiple jobs, it is important to find ways to invest in school food service staff by providing additional hours and increased pay to serve the school community. In some cases, districts who have transitioned to reusables have experienced cost savings that could be redirected to pay staff.

“We value people over the use of single-use disposables. It’s better to pay an employee to do a job that is worthwhile and support the greater good, than spend money on things we perpetually throw away.”

­­- Diane Grodek, Executive Chef for the Austin Independent School District (Texas)

Monetary Costs

It seems intuitive that FSW you only have to buy once, would ultimately cost less than FSW you have to continually purchase. This indeed can be true, especially as you increase the time range you are considering. Still, there are many upfront, ongoing, and hidden costs that can present barriers to implementation of reusable FSW from single-use FSW, and they are worth identifying and addressing:

Upfront Costs

  • Dishwashing Machine - machine, space renovation, installation
  • Reusable FSW Set - usually buy multiple sets (2-3) for redundancy
  • Reusable Infrastructure - dish carts, dish racks, collection & waste signage
  • Labor - training and hiring dishwasher(s); assessing how many hours of work

Increased Ongoing Costs

  • Dishwashing Machine - maintenance, soap, utilities (water and electricity)
  • Transportation - if dishwashing occurs off-site
  • Labor - pay for dishwasher(s) and potentially van driver (if off-site) staffing

Hidden Cost

  • Training Staff - teachers, custodians, and food/ nutrition service staff will have to learn and adapt to the new system.
  • Training Students - students are quick to learn, but will need time and direction to adjust to the new system. Establishing the program with the younger students should make implementation with middle and high school grades easier over time.

Decreased Costs and Savings

There is also some potential for decreased costs and savings worth identifying and addressing when implementing this new project:

Decreased Ongoing Cost

  • FSW - Buying replacements from wear and tear, and potential item loss (vs constantly purchasing disposables)
  • Storage - Storing 2-3 sets (vs a month or a year worth of disposables)
  • Waste Disposal - Regardless if the school has access to only single-stream waste sorting (landfill) or three-stream waste sorting (compost, recycling, and landfill), the waste from school meals will decrease and be less contaminated. If you are one of 7,000+ communities in the US that are a pay-as-you-throw (also called trash metering, unit pricing, variable rate pricing, or user-pay) community1, the waste hauling cost will decrease as well.

Hidden Savings

  • Making your school greener - There are grants available for green schools projects
  • Improved health and focus of students - If the students eat more, and are healthier, there will be cost improvements around infrastructure, and staffing

Prices for these products can vary considerably - not just between the different material types but also among manufacturers and brands within the same material-type. As institutional purchasers, schools can often negotiate bulk pricing or look into cooperative purchasing opportunities, including buying off of their state’s FSW contract.

Comparison of Common Single-Use FSW Materials: Price Range Per Unit

Disclaimer: Price ranges are calculated from 66 currently available products from 17 manufacturers at minimum available bulk pricing. Prices change regularly and this is for demonstration purposes only. *Certified compostable PFAS-free molded fiber products could be a better option as long as you have access to a commercial compost facility that accepts them. **Paper and molded fiber foodware with a coating or lining is difficult for recycling facilities to process. See Appendix A. †Plastic foodware relies on fossil fuels for production, often contains harmful chemicals, and has low recycling rates. See Appendix A & B. ‡Untested molded-fiber products may contain PFAS chemicals which are harmful to both people and the environment. See Appendix A. §EPS trays are rarely recycled and contain the chemical styrene which can leach food. See Appendix A.

Make the system more robust. Leverage your partners.

The school population naturally turns over every year. This is not just the student body graduating, but also teachers, staff, nutrition services, custodians, and parents in the community will sometimes leave as well. It is often difficult to hold onto institutional knowledge and keep environmental and health advocates pushing the school to be better. Sometimes schools will back slide. How do you keep a positive change in the system in place for the long term? A cafeteria change cannot fall on one champion, because if that champion leaves, the system will fall apart. Many in the school community need to take ownership of the project. Assigning many different roles to potential champions makes the system more robust.

Example 1: Teacher(s)

If you are in a K-5 school, have one or all the fourth grade teachers teach lessons/ unit around the cafeteria, every year. These could be around waste audits, food waste, cafeteria systems, plastic pollution, or forming a green team. Any grade can do it, so we encourage teachers who are most excited to adopt lessons around the cafeteria, but 5th graders in a K-5 system graduate, and 1st or 2nd graders might not be mature enough to provide meaningful help as a green team. The goal would be to have the students learn about the cafeteria system and then take action to improve it. This could look like green team volunteering, writing letters to stakeholders, or educating the other students about the problems and solutions to cafeteria issues. In middle or high school, science or nutrition teachers can engage whole classes around cafeteria issues and Eco clubs can form green teams. Buy-in from the pre-teens and teens is more challenging around waste monitoring and audits, but they might be more ready to activate their student voice around these issues. We find engaging the teachers to teach students around these issues create a student population expecting action around FSW.

Example 2: Custodian

Less waste in the cafeteria, means less heavy bags for the custodians to move. Even if the custodian has a cart or bin rollers, they often have to throw the bag into tall dumpsters. The custodian is acutely aware of how many bags of waste they are responsible for. Having them monitor through easily recordable charts about daily waste bags (just landfill, or landfill, compost, and recycling) allows them and others to see if the waste is fluctuating in the cafeteria. If the waste is changing, something in the system is changing it, whether it be food students do not like, a new material, or a breakdown in the system, all of which is powerful information that the school community can act on. Also, the hope is to provide the custodian with waste helpers for the new system. Encouraging the custodian to take a leadership role in directing the waste helpers, or even the whole student population about what goes where can encourage ownership of the system. Once the custodian takes on the stewardship role, they will be an advocate to continuing it and improving its functioning.

Example 3: Nutrition Service Staff

If there is a new dishwasher, someone is going to be responsible for its loading/unloading, daily functioning, soap purchasing, care, and maintenance. We predict this should be about 2-4 extra hours of work a day, depending on the system and school size. The person responsible, most likely a nutrition service staff, should be paid for these extra hours and this should be reflected in their job description and contract. Having dedicated staff hours to dishwashing will help ensure that the dishwasher is in use and functioning. These increased hours will also provide financial incentive for the nutrition service staff to make sure the program continues from each year to the next.

Example 4: Principal

The principal is the person for setting the norms of the school. Getting the principal to fully embrace the news changes and to publicly announce it is very important to assure the sustainability of the new system. During the announcing of the new program and explaining how it works, try to include the principal in the process. This serves as clarity for not only the students, but also the staff who might be resistant or unsure about the transition. Having the principal give monthly reminders or visit the cafeteria provides some authority to the new system and encourages it to be institutionalized.

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 or visit

Ditching Disposables A Toolkit for Healthier Foodware in K-12 Schools