Even as Portland Public Schools has cultivated an eco-friendly image with a "green" schools push and a new farm-to-school program to provide local food for its lunches, it has served almost 33,000 meals each school day since 2001 on nonreusable plastic-foam trays.
Those trays aren't naturally biodegradable, and each day's worth of disposable trays takes about 500 years to dissolve in a landfill.
"I think a lot of parents were surprised to see the kids were eating on throwaway trays," says Corey Cliffe, a parent volunteer at Abernethy Elementary School's cafeteria.
In a very small way, that's changing at Abernethy and eight other schools. This winter, the school district started testing reusable lunch trays at nine elementary, K-8 and middle schools. But that leaves 76 other Portland public schools still using disposable trays.
The imbalance is just the latest example of the pitched battle that can pit economics and healthy school lunches against sustainability in Portland Public Schools.
PPS used to work with California-based National Polystyrene Recycling Company to recycle the cheaper trays made of polystyrene until the company closed in early 2001. Since then, all 85 of Portland's schools have been disposing of the trays because district officials say there wasn't any other polystyrene recycling company that could do the job as cheaply.
And changing policies for the district's 47,000 students hasn't been easy, even in a city that likes to think of itself as green.
It's a tough balance when federal funding provides no more than $1.10 per lunch, says PPS nutrition services director Kristy Obbink.
"We are more concerned about putting money into the food rather than into the plate it's served on," Obbink says. "We are very concerned about the environment, but with $1.10 to spend on the lunch—that includes food and supplies—I have to ask myself, do I spend it on high-quality food, or an expensive plate?"
With money from Metro, the regional government overseeing area recycling programs, the district is able to spend $13,680 on 4,560 polycarbonate trays for Abernethy, Ainsworth, Buckman, Chapman, Glencoe, Lewis and Skyline schools, and daVinci and West Sylvan middle schools.
These nine schools are members of Oregon Green Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools with waste management and recycling programs.
Portland Public Schools will spend the next four months weighing the pros and cons of reusable trays for more of its schools. The new trays would be only offered to schools that show an interest in going green, since funding in the district's nutritional services department doesn't provide for labor costs created by the need to clean the trays. That means parent and student volunteers must roll up their sleeves and wash the trays themselves.
During a recent visit to daVinci Middle School in Northeast Portland, a student vigilantly stood watch next to the garbage can, making sure that no one threw away the brand-new trays—a force of habit daVinci students are trying to kick.
"We even did a skit for our talent show, to show the new trays," says Wilson Almuss, a 12-year-old student on the school's "green team."
On a second visit to a school still using disposable trays—Roosevelt High School in North Portland—students tossed everything from plates, soda cans and water bottles in the trash after lunch. Custodian Tina Jacky says the 180-gallon bin, nicknamed "The Whale," is full after every lunch period.
"We literally don't recycle anything here," she says.
Portland City Council passed a ban on products with polystyrene foam—the scientific name for Styrofoam—in 1990. The ban includes all food vendors and restaurants but excludes PPS due to budget costs.
All meals in the David Douglas and Parkrose school districts in outer East Portland are served on reusable trays.