Indian civil rights activist Mahatma Ghandhi is credited with saying, "Be the change you want to see in the world." The statement can be applied to a group of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) students who wanted to change a small part of their world and found success in the process. The end result is now a greater effort by IPS to implement more environmentally friendly practices in their operations.
The group of about 8-10 students from the Sidener Academy started with a simple task. A few were a part of the school's robotics team and were looking for a STEM-related research project. It was suggested to the students — through Jim Poyser of Earth Charter Indiana (and former NUVO Managing Editor) — that they consider researching the environmental impact of something that they use in their everyday lives, such as the polystyrene trays used by the school district's cafeteria system.
Through their research the students learned the detrimental effects polystyrene has on the environment. They learned that the synthetic material releases toxins into the atmosphere when burned and doesn't break down organically when sitting in a landfill. The students learned that polystyrene cannot be recycled — it can only be broken up and pressed into packing peanuts. They learned that only mealworms can actually eat polystyrene, but the number of mealworms needed to significantly reduce the waste isn't feasible, especially since the larvae turn into beetles over a short period. The conclusion to their research determined that the best solution would be for their school district to stop using polystyrene trays altogether.
IPS shifted its food service model from school-based kitchens to a centralized kitchen model in 2007. Instead of each school have a functioning kitchen where food is prepared onsite and served directly to the children, all food is prepared off site, packaged into individual serving sizes, and shipped via truck to all school locations. The individual packaged food options are distributed to the students who then carry their food to their lunch tables on "disposal" polystyrene trays.
(I know — it is sad to think that there now exists a generation of Indianapolis students to whom Adam Sandler's "Lunch Lady Land" song has absolutely no meaning.)
The students' research not only included the environmental impact of the trays, but the cost effectiveness of the school district's decisions. All of the school kitchens were "decommissioned" with the food service change. All of the appliances in the kitchens, including the tray washers, were removed from the buildings. Students learned that in order to return to plastic trays, the trays and the washers would have to be replaced. An industrial washer for the trays costs about $30,000 per unit. That doesn't include the cost of the trays or the ongoing water and electric bills associated with each washer. They also determined that the trays were not mandated by any state or federal law and were not a rule or requirement according to district policies.
The students put all of their information into a PowerPoint presentation with the dream of sharing it with school officials. They coined themselves "Just Tray No" and practiced a group presentation. After a few dry runs at Orchard School and during a pregame event at an Indiana Pacers game, the students got the opportunity to meet with IPS officials, including IPS superintendent D. Lewis Ferebee. The students sat down with IPS officials for 30 minutes revealing their research, explaining some of the alternatives they had reached on their own and answering questions. They were nervous, but dedicated to their presentation.
"It was kind of nerve-wracking because we didn't know what they were going to say," said 11-year-old Emily. "But it was really cool to answer their questions and get their feedback."
The pinnacle of their work was reached at the May 26 school board meeting. They thought they were there to give their presentation yet again, this time for the school board members. But officials announced as a part of the food service infrastructure improvements planned for the following year, the district would shift to using paper trays in the fall.
"The Just Tray No students had a well-organized and well-researched presentation. They clearly shared the facts and proposed several options for addressing the problem they had identified," said Ferebee in a statement following the board meeting. "We were in the process of studying food service improvements and an investment in slightly costlier paper trays was within the budget. We are excited to continue to work with these talented and dedicated young people to explore additional ways to be more environmentally friendly in IPS."
Currently IPS spends $235,600 annually on the polystyrene trays. That equals over 4.7 million trays at a $0.05 per tray. The district was able to find paperboard trays — which are biodegradable and safer for the environment — for just $0.02 more per tray.
With the promise from the administration of exploring more ways to improve the district's carbon footprint, the students are already looking to future projects.
"I think it's important that young people get involved, because adults are always thinking logistically — and so not as creative — sorry, adults!" said 11-year-old Lillian. "Kids are more open minded and will want to make things happen and will make it happen."
Their ideas include hybrid buses, recycling receptacles in all schools and eliminating straws for milk and other carton drinks served for breakfast and lunch.
"We so often despair over our enormous challenges wondering what we can do that's significant enough to matter," said Poyser about the students' accomplishments. "Well, I'm here to tell you, youth stepping up to get involved at the juncture of environmental stewardship and civic leadership is an inspiring, future-affirming action. We should all support them."