Young Activists Fight to Ban Polystyrene Foam Trays in Schools
Despite support from the city, the student group has not yet met its goal.
The Young Activist Club, a group of about 12 students at Piney Branch Elementary School, have made it their mission to rid the school of polystyrene food service ware, and while that goal has thus far eluded the student group, it has scored some victories.
Those achievements include getting the Takoma Park City Council to adopt a resolution on June 7 decreeing that the city government would no longer purchase polystyrene food service ware. And on Nov. 4, the school's Parent Teacher Association agreed not to use polystyrene products at its events.
The reason the club is opposed to polystyrene food service ware is that the county disposes of those trays by incinerating them, creating "toxins in the air" and adding to greenhouse gases, said Margo Bloch, 10, a fifth-grader at Piney Branch and a member of the young activists group.
Piney Branch students use about 250 polystyrene foam trays per day, and countywide, the school system produces about 5.6 million foam trays annually. To get its point across, the Young Activist Club has appeared at a Takoma Park City Council meeting with a day's worth of those trays.
In addition, the students have proposed that the school install a dishwasher to clean re-useable trays and cutlery.
"If our school had dishwashers, it would help keep the environment from getting all messed up," Bloch said.
In support of that position, the group has also provided a "PBES Dishwasher Feasibility Study"—conducted by Burke Design—that lists the costs of installing a dishwasher in the school. It is a study Montgomery County Public Schools challenges.
Piney Branch Elementary School spends about $3,700 a year on disposable trays and $1,600 on plastic cutlery, according to the Young Activists Club. A new dishwasher could cost between $3,100 and $4,500, depending on the make and model. The students say it would cost an additional $1,500 to purchase enough hard plastic trays for the school's 500 students, $400 to $600 for washable flatware and $5,000 per year to pay someone to operate the dishwasher.
The school district disputes those figures, saying it conducted an "item-by-item" analysis of the Burke Design report and found a "discrepancy" in the cost of staff time to operate the dishwasher.
The school district says it would cost $11,323 in staff time to operate the dishwasher, which is $244 higher than the $11,079 cost in staff time listed in the Burke Design report.
"This one discrepancy alone is reason to question the validity of the feasibility study and to reject the idea that the use of a dishwasher is a cost-effective alternative to the current practice of disposable trays," the school district responded.
The school system also says its "cost analysis of the project suggest that the cost to install and operate the dishwasher will be about $70,456. This is not a responsible use of the school system resources."
Montgomery County Public Schools said the proposal will not be pursued.
"All of the kids were shaken [by the board's dismissal of the study]," said Nadine Bloch, Margo's mother. "We have the facts, and [the students] don't know what's wrong with grownups who won't listen to the facts."
Nadine Bloch said the students—who have raised $10,000 for a dishwasher and needed trays and cutlery—calculated the costs correctly, but if more money is needed, the Young Activist Club will raise it. In addition, the school's PTA has agreed to cover the expenses of running the dishwasher, she said.
The student group "raised all the money needed to install the dishwashers; there's no downside for MCPS," Nadine Bloch said.
For their efforts, on Nov. 8, the Young Activist Club was awarded the Montgomery County Civic Federation's Community Hero award.
Nonetheless, "the Board of Education will not even bring [the purchase of a dishwasher] up for a vote," Margo Bloch said.
Despite the board's response, the student group plans to continue pursuing action on the dishwasher proposal and has meetings scheduled with Board of Education members as well as Montgomery County Council members. The Young Activist Club is still applying for grants to raise additional funds, and the group plans to meet with other PTAs to convince them to join the "No Funds Spent on Polystyrene Pledge."
The student group is also considering a campaign in Takoma Park to educate businesses and get them to pledge to go "Polystyrene Free." They are working on the creation of a pledge and a sticker that can be prominently displayed in business/shop windows. They will meet with Takoma Park officials to discuss the possibility of a city directive or ordinance banning the use of polystyrene for food service ware. And they are working on an educational bookmark for community distribution about polystyrene health and environment issues.
There is "lots to do," Ms. Bloch said.