MANHATTAN — City schools will begin to phase out Styrofoam lunch trays this month in favor of eco-friendly compostable ones, the Department of Education is expected to announce Wednesday.
All schools are expected to have the new trays for 850,000 daily meals by September, according to a newsletter from GrowNYC, which runs city greenmarkets and does outreach to schools about the city's compost program.
In making the switch, environmental advocates hope it will not only be healthier for the city's more than 1 million public school students — since polystyrene used in foam trays is listed as a "possible" human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency — but also cut down on trash that gets sent to landfills.
More than 700 city schools — including all in Manhattan and Staten Island — now participate in the city's organics collection program for food scraps and other materials that can be turned into compost or processed into natural gas.
But when the Department of Sanitation audited the 358 schools that participated during the 2013 school year, it found that contamination — when the "wrong" material ends up in the organics bin, such as foam trays, plastic containers, cutlery and plastic packaging — was significantly higher than expected, according to a January 2015 report.
The organics collected in Staten Island had contamination rates of 14 percent, in Manhattan it was 7 percent and in Brooklyn it was 3.6 percent, according to the audit.
Composting facilities reported anecdotally that organics collections from schools had contamination rates of 50 percent or more and sometimes looked "virtually indistinguishable" from regular trash, the report noted.
"DOE schools receiving organics collection service are required to participate, whether or not they want to, which could be a cause of high levels of contamination in the organics loads set out for DSNY collection," the Sanitation Department's report states.
"Feedback from DOE confirms that the most successful schools use student 'green teams' to monitor cafeteria sorting stations," it continued. "However, getting students to sort their waste in the cafeteria remains a heavy lift in the majority of schools.'"
The DOE did not immediately respond to request for comment.
"It's really gigantic that New York City is doing this," said public school mom Debby Lee Cohen, who co-founded Cafeteria Culture, which is piloting a program to improve school participation in the composting program.
Cohen wants to make sure students, teachers, administrators and custodians understand why schools are making the switch. Cafeteria signs about what to sort are insufficient without classroom education on why kids are sorting, she said.
"We're about to hand this new plate to millions of students, and they don't know why. Some kids have no idea. Some staff have no idea," Cohen said. "I look at this as a storytelling opportunity."
Her organization, which has been advocating for compostable trays for five years, has a curriculum that focuses, for instance, on how sending trash to landfills or incinerators hurts the health of local communities and how it can also lead to animal suffering and climate change.
"If you're only doing this work in the cafeteria, you're not going to get the buy-in from the teachers," she said. "In New York City, teachers don't have to be in the cafeteria. And if you haven't been in a public school cafeteria recently, you can't understand their chaotic nature."
The next big thing that schools are working on is changing from plastic utensils to compostable ones and tackling the problem of plastic packaging used for sporks, mini-burgers and sandwiches, Cohen said.
Contamination in school compost is the "start-up problem" right now, but it can be dealt with, said Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"These changes don't happen overnight," he added. "But this shift to turning food waste into usable compost and energy is definitely the way we see things heading.
"It reduces global warming emissions, saves landfill space [and] produces an end product — fertilizer — that improves soil and helps with drought resistance. Composting is the next big thing."