What Is the Real Cost of Lunch Waste?

IMG_0045By Joshleen

Have you ever thought about how much waste students produce each day in the cafeteria?

According to Mildred Martinez, a cafeteria worker at MS 57/James Weldon Johnson Leadership Academy, middle school students produce three very large bags of garbage each day after lunch. That doesn’t even include all the students in pre-K through fifth grade at PS 57. Adding up all the grades, that’s about 30 bags of garbage being thrown out every lunch.

SchoolFood serves over 850,000 meals to New York City’s 1.1 million students each school day, so imagine how much garbage that is.

When we looked at the garbage outside the cafeteria, we saw that the majority of the waste is Styrofoam plates, which do not decompose, so they will be here forever.


Styrofoam plates fill the garbage after lunch.

“Students produce over 700 trays a day each period we give a meal,” said Martinez.

When Jeanine Romeo, a teacher at MS 57, was teaching fifth grade, she tried to convince the principal at the time to switch to biodegradable plates. Her class was doing a unit on global warming and studying eco-friendly businesses in New York City. At a local pizzeria, they found out there are plates made out of sugar cane that would decompose in a month. As it turned out, these plates were available through the Department of Education.

“We asked Mr. [Israel] Soto, ‘if the DOE has an alternative to Styrofoam, why aren’t we using it?” said Romeo. “And he said they were too expensive.”

Styrofoam plates cost 3 cents each, according to CafeteriaCulture.org, a project of the Fund for the City of New York. According to Romeo, the sugar cane plates cost closer to 52 cents each. Multiply those costs by the 721 students eating lunch at PS/MS 57 each day and you get $21.63 versus $374.92 for plates every day. That’s a big difference.

With a quick Google search, we found biodegradable sugar cane plates for as little as 25 cents, but that’s still a big difference in cost.

Recently, in effort to help cut down on the garbage, the DOE decided to use paper plates one day a week.

By contrast, in India, according to a recent article on Huffington Post, instead of a Styrofoam plate, students eat off a very big leaf. This is good for the community because the leaf can decompose so that there is less garbage.

It’s unlikely New York City school kids will be eating off of leaves any time soon. The chance we have of reducing waste here at MS 57 is if the cost of biodegradable plates comes down.