Urban School Food Alliance

Philadelphia district switches to compostable lunch plates

Feb. 14, 2018
District cafeterias have stopped using polystyrene trays, plates and bowls.

Lunch rooms in the Philadelphia School District have switched to compostable round plates made from recycled paper.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the change will enable the school system to keep 9 million pieces—trays, plates, and bowls—of polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam) out of landfills each year.

The district has long wanted to stop using the polystyrene items, but it was trapped by cost. The material is cheaper than environmentally friendlier alternatives, and school food service operates on the narrowest of margins as it works to feed 130,000 students.

The Urban School Food Alliance, a coalition of the nation’s largest district’s food-service departments, banded together a few years ago to leverage their purchasing power and share tips on serving better food with better environmental practices. The group challenged the industry to come up with a compostable plate; a vendor came up with one at a price point districts can live with.

“It was a game-changer for us,” says Amy Virus, Philadelphia’s assistant food services director. “They were able to negotiate really good pricing that we could piggyback on and purchase from the vendor. We’re really excited about finally making this change.”

The new plate has five compartments, including a spot for a drink in the center. It’s earned early raves from students, Virus says. It’s sturdier, and the drink compartment means that students no longer need to use both a tray and a plate to juggle their lunches. 

Compostable trays average $0.12 per piece, but the food-services group got the price down to about $0.05 each. That’s more expensive than the $0.04-per-item price for Styrofoam trays, but Virus says that because the switch has largely eliminated the need for bowls and trays, the district’s food service budget is able to absorb the price difference.

For now, most of the district’s trays still are going into the landfill, but they eventually will break down, and officials hope to expand school-based composting programs.

“We would love to have the schools and the students and staff on board to have more composting,” Virus says. “This is a great potential opportunity.”

Next on the food coalition’s list? The group is exploring losing plastic utensils in favor of compostable ones.

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