U.S. Water News Online
DECATUR, Ala. -- At a time when students are learning in
classrooms to recycle and take care of Mother Earth, Decatur's
lunchrooms are forgoing ecology in favor of disposable economics.
Decatur City Schools opened a state-of-the-art Wetlands Edge
Environmental Center three years ago to educate students about
ecology. A year later, the school system's child nutrition program
completed its switch to disposable plastic foam trays and plastic
Enough for about 1.5 million meals are tossed into garbage bins
yearly and hauled to the landfill, where they take years to break
down. Is this a mixed message to students?
Decatur Superintendent Sam Houston says no.
He said lunchrooms recycle some products and no longer use
dishwasher detergents heavy with phosphates.
Lunchroom workers hand-wash pots and pans.
Even if they didn't, Travis Wilson, maintenance supervisor for
Decatur's water and wastewater plants, said schools using dishwasher
detergents would not produce enough phosphates to be noticeable when
they reach the plants.
"We looked at both sides, and basically came down on the side that
is most beneficial to the children and our program," Houston said.
"Not only have we kept prices constant, we're offering a more diverse
menu with increased nutritional value and quality."
The plastic foam used in lunchrooms is polystyrene. It's
controversial in the food service industry because it doesn't break
down in landfills. Berkeley, Calif., banned its use in public
After national protests, McDonald's and Burger King replaced
plastic foam with paper. Polystyrene is a colorless, transparent
thermoplastic with oil as a base ingredient. Estimates of its
landfill life vary from 40 to 100 years.
Unlike Decatur schools, Morgan County schools considered but
didn't change to disposables.
The system's child nutrition director, Susan Emmons, said she was
concerned about putting plastic foam in the landfill.
"There probably would be some savings, but my primary concern is
the environment," Emmons said. "Disposable creates more garbage,
particularly plastic foam because it doesn't break down quickly
Limestone County doesn't use the disposable foam either.
The county's CNP director, Linda Griffin, said the increase in
garbage would be a problem for her rural schools because it'd require
more trash bins and pickups.
Decatur lunchroom director Julia Senn said she was concerned about
plastic foam until she read a brochure from the company that supplies
The Genpak Corp. brochure says non-biodegradable materials like
plastic foam are preferable because they "remain inert and harmless"
in landfills. The brochure says biodegradable materials "break down
and form leachate or methane gas -- two major environmental problems
in current landfills." That's not the position of Ricky Terry,
director of the Morgan County Landfill.
He said the landfill needs trash to break down.
The landfill has a methane recovery program to recycle gas from
"Over a period of time, as the trash breaks down, we can put more
on top of it," Terry said. "Garbage that doesn't break down takes up
space, and then eventually we have to find more space for another
Terry said "it's a nightmare finding new land because no one wants
to live near a landfill."
There are companies that recycle plastic foam, but none locally.
According to Jan Greenlee, who handles Decatur's purchasing and
contracts, the system's garbage output hasn't changed since 2002. The
system has 20 bins and BFI makes 72 pickups a week.
Greenlee said there might be several reasons that the switch to
disposable in garbage was not noticeable.
She said the program was phased in and schools recycle other
Senn believes the disposables are more sanitary.
"Have you ever been to a restaurant and got a fork with food still
stuck to it? It's disgusting," she said.
According to Senn, that aspect plus economics outweighed
environmental concerns when she chose disposable.
She said a part-time employee washing dishes for four hours a day
costs $17,000 a year in salary and benefits.
This figure doesn't include water use, dishwasher chemicals or
breakage replacement costs. A plastic foam set, with a tray, cup and
plastic utensils, costs 5 cents.
Senn said the CNP program spent $71,285 last year on the plastic
foam sets for about 1.5 million meals.
"Just the labor alone to wash dishes at 17 schools would cost us
about $289,000 for the year," she said. "It's hard to ignore that
kind of price savings."
Senn thinks going disposable is one reason Decatur's lunch prices
stayed at $1.50 for elementary students, and $1.75 for secondary
students and adults for the past seven years.
Despite her decision not to use disposables, Emmons said Morgan
County's prices are the same as Decatur's.
The last increase also was seven years ago.
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