A UF researcher and two Flagler County educators, along with their students, sparked a green initiative to usher in recyclable paper lunch trays into the county’s school cafeterias.
The Bio-d-GREAT-able project, which launched in November, has been in the works for more than two years.
Maia McGuire, a Florida Sea Grant agent with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, said the main goal of the project is to reduce the number of microplastics, small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, in the oceans, and the number of lunch trays going to the landfill.
Flagler County schools send 1.4 million styrofoam lunch trays to the landfill each year, according to school district officials.
McGuire first mentioned the topic in October 2015 while talking with two teachers about planting sea oats on county beach dunes.
She said she was invited to speak to Ellen Asher’s second-grade class at Old Kings Elementary School and Courtney VandeBunte’s 10th grade class at Flagler Palm Coast High School and did an experiment on microplastics with them at Marineland Beach.
“During the course of their learning more about microplastics … they came up with the idea of trying to get their school to reduce the plastics that they were using, and specifically in the cafeteria, because they were using Styrofoam food trays,” McGuire said.
The effects of microplastics in the environment is a newer area of research, and a lot of different marine life consume microplastics, treating them like food, McGuire said.
“Microplastics are quite challenging to work with, and so we don’t have any data specifically for Florida at this point,” she said.
McGuire said the plastics in the environment can end up in the ocean and freshwater systems and eventually breakdown into smaller bits.
Once Asher and her class started learning more about this environmental hazard, she said her students became interested in finding alternatives to what they were using in the cafeteria.
Janina Aue, a student in Asher’s class, said, “I wanted to help the sea animals that were affected by the microplastic problem, and I wanted to alert people about how plastic was hurting our environment.”
Asher said she integrated this project on microplastics into her curriculum, and the students read everything they could about these plastics and nurdles, or very small pellets of plastic.
“We went out with Dr. McGuire to the beaches, and we calculated how much plastic there was per square foot, so there we integrated it into math [studies],” Asher said.
After doing research and becoming more aware of the problem, the students eventually protested the use of the regular plastic trays, wanting to use something else.
“This whole unit, one fact grew upon the other until it kind of exploded, and it was really exciting because the kids, not only did they protest, they did a survey throughout the two schools,” Asher said.
In addition, Asher said her students did a cost analysis and reached out to different companies to see who could give them a viable alternative.
Asher and VandeBunte’s students also made a presentation to Food Services Director Angela Bush for the schools to start using biodegradable materials like recycled paper products.
According to Bush, the new trays are almost $.01 more expensive per tray.
“The additional cost based on current usage is approximately $15,000 per year,” Bush said. “Our current budget is $5.5 million dollars. I’m confident we can find some areas to tighten up in to offset this expense.”
Students made infomercials and posters about reducing the amount of plastic waste and using new lunch trays, and with slogans like “Nix the nurdles, Protect the turtles!” and “No more plastic, make our oceans fantastic!” to influence other schools to switch.
Asher said the new lunch tray program is now in place at all Flagler County schools, and Nassau and Indian River counties have begun using these recyclable paper trays as well.
She said the idea for this initiative was sent to 40 other counties in the state; 30 have accepted it and plan to make the switch.
The school board has praised this initiative, including District 5 school board member Maria Barbosa.
“The students, they put a lot of energy into the program, and I think that would be a good thing,” Barbosa said. “And I think they’re doing a great job. It was just coming up with a new idea.”
Some students say feel they’ve been able to make an impact in the world.
“The fact that we were looking at sea life and that we are able to make a change in the world really interested me,” said Leah Ruddell, one of Asher’s students. “I love that we have been able to make a difference.”