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The members of the Green Team at Memorial Middle School looked at the trash cans in their cafeterias and didn't like what they saw.

Styrofoam lunch trays, used when dishwashers aren't available, were creating piles of discarded plastic.

"They'd be getting thrown away, because there really wasn't a good system to recycle them," said William Summit, 13, a seventh-grader at the school.

Added classmate Mia McKee, 12: "They put out harmful toxins that, like, could make you sick and stuff. And they pile up in the trash really fast."

So the team — an environmental group that meets during Memorial's "Bear Den" study hall period — decided to look for an alternative. They researched various types of biodegradable lunch trays and created a public presentation.

Team members Danielle Hernandez, Taylor Lumpkin and Amara Peterson gave that presentation Jan. 22 to the Albany School Board, urging the district to switch from foam polystyrene to trays made out of sugarcane. 

School districts already are mandated by state law to phase out the use of polystyrene plates, trays and other food containers by July 2021 (Albany is planning the change by 2019). But the Memorial presentation sped up the process, at least at that school.

The result: When food service workers need to resort to disposable trays at Memorial, those trays are now made of sugarcane.

It's not a perfect fix. The sugarcane trays still get tossed in the trash, just like the foam ones did, and will sit in the landfill just the same. The school district is planning talks with Republic Services about alternatives but doesn't yet know what they might be, said Russell Allen, the district's business director.

"If what we're really trying to do is remove things out of the landfill and have things be biodegradable, there’s still a piece missing," Allen said. "We’re still exploring what our options are with regard to that piece."

The Green Team members said they understand the move won't make a giant difference, but feel it's at least a small victory to use a biodegradable product, especially if it can be composted at some point.

"They decompose, so they don't hurt animals," Mia said.

School district officials, too, feel the students have performed a service.

"I am very proud of the work they did and I want kids to know that we listen to them," Golden said. "They were thoughtful and fact-based in their efforts." 

The team was pleased by the results. "It feels pretty good, yeah, to get recognized for what we're doing," William said.

Memorial usually uses plastic trays that get washed after each lunch period, said Kathy Pitzer, general manager of the food service program. The program serves about 250 lunches at the middle school each day.

If a staff member is sick or needs to be sent to cover at another school, that creates a backlog for dishwashing time. Rather than let dirty trays sit and create a health hazard, or go into overtime to make sure everything gets scoured on time, it's simply easier and quicker to use the disposables.

That has happened at Memorial a couple times a week on average because a staff position was open. That's now been filled.

The sugarcane trays were an option through Sysco, the supplier for Sodexo, the company that runs Albany's food service program. They're more expensive — 7 cents per tray, compared with 3 cents for the Styrofoam — so Pitzer said her program is doing what it can to limit the need for their use.

In the meantime, Green Team members have turned their attention to another item they'd like to see disappear: single-use plastic bags.

Their research found the bags blow long distances and often end up in the ocean. There, they become hazards to marine life and eventually break down into particles that are swallowed by fish and injure their digestive systems.

William, Danielle and team members Laik Gregory and Joshua LaBelle created a presentation on elimination of the bags and brought it Feb. 28 to the Albany City Council. The council has no particular plans right now to phase out plastic bags, but they commended the team on its research and presentation. 

Team members aren't deterred. Next step: talking to state officials.

"I wanted to join this club because there's a lot of stuff happening in the world and not a lot of people know that," Laik said, referring to environmental issues.

Change is possible, he added. "It doesn't take a whole lot of people." 

Not everyone agrees with the Green Team's efforts, Danielle said. Some people argue that what they've done, or want to do, isn't necessary or isn't a good idea.

"We know it's the right thing," she said. "So we're still going to do it." 


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