Although Debby Lee Cohen asked her children every day what they ate for lunch, it never occurred to her to ask them what their school lunch was served on, and so, like most New York City parents, she remained blissfully ignorant. A trip last spring to the Climate Change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, however, changed all that.

Cohen’s 7-year old daughter stood staring at a diorama of a life-size polar bear standing on a melted island covered with trash. Then she turned around and announced that she would no longer buy school lunch in order “to save the polar bears.” And that’s how Debby Lee Cohen discovered that in New York City school lunches are served on Styrofoam trays.

We interviewed Debby Lee, a teacher at Parsons The New School for Design, to find out the health and environmental hazards of using Styrofoam and what parents and educators can do to get rid of the Styrofoam trays at their schools.

Why are you so determined to get rid of the Styrofoam trays in our schools?

Styrofoam (polystyrene) trays are the worst kept secret in NYC schools. NYC schools use 850,000 trays per day, which amounts to 153 million trays a year! They are terrible for our children’s health and for the environment. Some children eat three meals a day directly off of these trays, which are made up of the chemicals benzene and styrene. Styrene, a possible carcinogen, leaches into hot foods and has been linked to central nervous system disorders such as headaches, fatigue, depression, and hearing loss. New York State passed legislation banning toxic cleaning products in all schools. Parents should demand toxic-free school lunches as well. We should not be taking risks with our children’s health.

If that’s not bad enough, polystyrene is a petroleum-based product which stays around for centuries, if not longer, taking up an enormous amount of landfill space. Solid waste adds a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Why then are we still using Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is cheap, extremely lightweight, and insulates well. In fact, the price per tray just came down from 4 cents to 3 cents! Most of the available alternatives, such as biodegradable sugarcane trays, cost much more. And although prices of alternative disposables are slowly coming down due to increased demand, the prices are not coming down fast enough to make the change that is needed.

How did you make the transition from an informed, angry mom to an activist?

A few weeks after I discovered our children were eating off of Styrofoam trays, I had the opportunity with my Parsons 3-D students to create am installation out of used Styrofoam trays. I was in school cafeterias pulling out hundreds of dirty trays from the trash and realized that a significant number were barely used. My initial thought was — why don’t we have a “don’t need, don’t take” policy in place. This would not only reduce the number of trays thrown out but would save the city money. For example, a student who only buys a sandwich and a drink doesn’t really need a tray.

I started making phone calls everyday, looking for some organization that was dealing with the tray issue. Although I found some amazing individuals, like parent Helen Greenberg, who were working hard to make change within their own school, there was no group working on trays as a citywide issue. I wondered if parents of children receiving free and subsidized school lunch had a clue about the harmful effects of Styrofoam trays.

I was already in discussion with another parent and web designer, Robin Perl, about creating a website about climate change. We saw the tray issue as a solvable problem.  Robin designed an effective site and gathered quotes from doctors at Mt. Sinai Medical Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which gave us credibility. We sent out emails and petitions to everyone we knew and our organization, Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS), was formed.

You’ve succeeded in bringing Trayless Tuesday to our schools. Can you describe what Trayless Tuesday is and how you made it happen?

Robin Perl and I, along with fellow Parsons teacher and product designer, Jessica Corr, and parent Helen Greenberg, asked for a meeting with the Department of Education’s Eric Goldstein and other SchoolFood directors. We agreed in the meeting to find ways of reducing tray use with Jessica’s Parsons class working in a school cafeteria. Out of this class, the idea of Trayless Tuesday, a trend that was already taking place on college campuses, was born. The Department of Education agreed to try it out and as of March 2010 all city schools participate in Trayless Tuesday, which reduces the use of Styrofoam trays by 20 percent, or 850,00 trays per week.

Right now Parsons students are designing posters to support Trayless Tuesday and to improve cafeteria recycling. Unfortunately, these posters will not arrive in schools until the fall. In the meantime, we need parents and administrators to explain to staff and students what Trayless Tuesday is all about and why it’s such an important movement for our schools.

How are you working to get rid of Styrofoam trays the other four days of the week?

The first step is to use recyclable paper products on pizza days and all other days and meals that do not have a saucy component. SchoolFood is already purchasing paper boats (what looks like a paper hot dog tray but larger), which it will substitute for the Styrofoam trays for all breakfast meals and soon on pizza days as well. SchoolFood director Stephen O’Brien is dedicated to making this change happen.

With the support of SchoolFood, our legislators, and the mayor’s office, we need to begin piloting alternative trays and systems in order to find solutions which do not threaten our children’s health while also significantly reducing our carbon emissions. This will take true collaboration involving many parties. We need to bring manufacturers, cafeteria and custodial unions, the recycling mill managers, legislators, and the city’s health, education, and santation departments together to formulate a viable long-term plan.

It is also time to make the elimination of Styrofoam a national movement. By increasing demand for alternative products, we can bring the price down on a national level. NYC should partner with other large East Coast cities and counties to increase buying power.

Schools can substitute their Styrofoam trays for biodegradable sugar-cane trays or reusable, washable trays if they have a dishwasher. How many schools are no longer using Styrofoam trays? What should a parent do if they want to get rid of the Styrofoam trays at their school?

I would first encourage parents to attend their school’s Wellness Committee meeting and ask that the paper boats be used instead of Styrofoam whenever possible. If your school does not have a Wellness Committee, NYC Green Schools has information about how to get one started. The city also has guidelines for establishing a Wellness Committee at your school.

Reusable trays would be great. Currently, however, there are only 30 public schools in the city that still have dishwashers and some schools do not even have the plumbing to support a dishwasher.

Twelve schools are presently self-funding the extra cost to purchase biodegradable sugarcane trays. I strongly encourage schools that can raise the money to make the change to sugarcane trays in order to keep their children from eating off of Styrofoam. Presently, however, there is no free composting facility or pick-up available (something we should all be advocating for), so these trays go directly into sealed landfills where they do not biodegrade for a very long time.

Our website explains the steps a parent can take to get rid of Styrofoam in their school.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

SOS is planning on setting up pilots for a variety of alternative possibilities, including composting for all the schools that use the sugar-cane trays, providing energy-efficient or solar-powered dishwashers for reusable trays, employing personal reusable trays and cutlery, and piloting new disposable prototypes as well as system changes that suit the needs of NYC and other large urban school districts. We need volunteers, partnerships with universities and manufacturers, and funding to get these initiatives going as soon as possible! For anyone interested in joining us, we can be contacted at [email protected]

As parents and educators, we have the responsibility to teach our children to be responsible citizens (which includes reducing waste) and to provide them with school facilities and services that they will not be paying for as adults! NYC has an enormous amount of work to do in terms of reducing our waste. We should teach and empower our children by setting the best example in our schools.