LAWRENCEVILLE - Those foam lunch trays prevalent in school cafeterias aren't the environmental killers they've been made out to be, but they do drive up the cost of waste removal and keep cafeteria employees running to outdoor trash bins.
Unless, that is, the trays are recycled.
Some Gwinnett County schools have adopted a recycling program for the five-compartment polystyrene lunch trays. Through a partnership with Evergreen Partnering Group, the lunch trays are collected and taken to a recycling facility in Norcross. There, the trays are washed and made into pellets that are used to make new trays and other products.
The program has helped "tremendously," said Gail Payne, the cafeteria manager at J.P. McConnell Middle School.
"It cuts back in labor," Payne said. "We serve about 2,300 to 2,400 meals a day."
All of those trays quickly filled the trash cans. Before the recycling initiative, cafeteria employees were "bombarded" with trash, taking 10 bags of trash out every 15 minutes, Payne said. Now, employees cart out about 12 bags two or three times a day, she said.
McConnell started its recycling program at the beginning of October, Payne said. A month later, students are in the habit of stacking up their used lunch trays, and few forget to do so, Payne said.
Gwinnett County Public Schools was the first school system in Georgia to participate in such a recycling program, said Michael Forrest, the president of Evergreen Partnering Group. DeKalb County schools have started the program in a few pilot schools, and other school systems in metro Atlanta have expressed interest in the program, he said.
Recycling the trays is a "cost-effective program that helps the economy of the schools," Forrest said.
Although Forrest said he did not want to say how much school systems could save, he said the savings can be significant.
The school is able to save money in waste removal because trays take up 40 to 50 percent of a cube of waste, Forrest said. The trash is made into a cube before it is transported to landfills, which calculate fees based on the cubic yards brought to them, he said.
Last school year, the school district threw away more than 13.9 million trays. With increased enrollment, the school system estimated it would use more than 14.5 million trays this school year.
At McConnell, Payne said the school uses about 30 500-count cases of trays per week.
By using the trays, the school system is saving on the cost of energy and water that would be necessary if they used plates, said Connie Wiggins, the executive director of Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful.
Recycling the trays saves space in the landfills and helps out with economic development by adding industries such as the plant in Norcross, Wiggins said.
Forrest said the Norcross plant also benefits the economy by training and hiring students through a partnership with Gwinnett's Special Education Department. By working at the plant, the students are learning a trade that can help them get careers, he said.
The school district was recognized for its efforts at the National Recycling Coalition's recent meeting in Atlanta, Wiggins said.
"Hats off to our school system for their great effort," she said.