Raritan High School and Cape May City Elementary work to ditch plastic
Students across New Jersey are pushing for their schools to operate more sustainably, starting with the lunch line. Working with teachers and district staff, they are helping schools figure out how to compost food waste and get rid of single-use plastic products; ultimately, they want washable, reusable products in the cafeteria.
Lunch Trays, Water Bottles and Food Waste Composting at Raritan High School
Members of the Raritan High School Environmental Science Club and the Raritan High School Green Team spearheaded the switch from polystyrene (Styrofoam) trays for hot lunches to a fiber-based tray that can be recycled. This change will help reduce the amount of cafeteria waste sent to landfills.
Polystyrene trays are convenient, but they take up landfill space and are suspected of releasing carcinogens according to the federal government’s National Toxicology Program. Before making the case for switching, the students of the Raritan High School Environmental Club conducted research on alternative tray options that included the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
The students presented their findings to the club advisers and to the Raritan High School Science Supervisor, Michael Miller. Miller shared the information with the Hazlet Township Public School District Business Administrator, Christopher Mullins, who then contacted Maschio’s Food Service to give them permission to order fiber trays that are recyclable. The students in the environmental club helped to promote the change to the student body through the morning announcements.
To further reduce cafeteria waste, the Raritan High School Environmental Club, in cooperation with the cafeteria staff, installed composting bins in the Outdoor Environmental Learning Center. These are used to compost the food scraps generated from the cafeteria and the culinary arts classes. Every Friday, or the last day of the school week, students collect the food scraps from the cafeteria and culinary arts classroom and place the food scraps into the compost bins. The compost produced is used in the outdoor planting beds and greenhouse. The vegetables and spices grown in the beds and greenhouse are used in the culinary arts classes and cafeteria.
The school also took action to cut down on plastic use. Eight water bottle refilling stations were installed throughout the high school to encourage students and staff members to reduce waste from plastic water bottles. In the first four months, the students and staff saved approximately 8,400 plastic water bottles from entering the waste stream.
Hazlet Township Public School District Superintendent, Dr. Scott Ridley, added, “In any worthwhile venture, and this undertaking certainly qualifies, it is always a sound strategy to involve those who will eventually inherit their surroundings from the community where they live. Our green team is one such group of young people who are absolutely committed to making the planet ‘greener’ and a better place to live for all, as society continues to grapple with these environmental challenges.”
Currently, six schools in the Hazlet Township Public School District have achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification including Cove Road Elementary School, Lillian Drive Elementary School, Middle Road Elementary School, Raritan High School, Raritan Valley Elementary School and Sycamore Drive Early Childhood Learning Center.
Straws and Plastic Utensils at Cape May City Elementary School The Cape May City Elementary School Green Team spends a lot of time brainstorming about how the school can educate the community on, and support solutions to, the ocean plastics problem. In 2018, Earth Club member and Student Council Vice President, Theo Parker, set a goal to end the use of plastic utensils in the school lunches by proposing the return to silverware.
The Cape May City Elementary Green Team and Earth Club supported the initiative, securing administrative and cafeteria staff approval. By replacing disposable utensils, the school also eliminated additional costs associated with their handling — storage, unpacking, and disposal (after only twenty minutes of use). The Cape May City Elementary School Green Team includes members representing students, parents, teachers, support staff, the community, the Cape May City Education Association, the Board of Education, facilities management and administration. The Earth Club includes students from fourth through sixth grades.
In a collaborative effort using social media, school flyers and conventional media, the school received enough donated silverware to achieve Theo’s goal before he transferred from the school mid-year with his Coast Guard family. In the classroom, teachers focused lessons on reducing, recycling and the proper disposal of waste.
Sandy Sandmeyer-Bryan is an educator, mentor and leader in New Jersey’s environmental community. She wears many hats; she is the Program for Academic and Creative Enrichment (PACE) teacher, the literacy teacher and the library manager at Cape May City Elementary School, as well as the coordinator of the Cape May City Elementary School Green Team. Sandy said, “I see a big part of my job as opening
up doors for the kids to peak through. I show them the possibilities and provide opportunities, and they take it from there. I see students move from awareness to action all the time and it fuels my energy and gives me hope for a sustainable future.”
The Cape May City Elementary School sponsored an Ocean Festival at its annual STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) event. The green team hosted a booth with the focus on plastic reduction. In April 2018, Cape May City Elementary was the first school to host a showing of the movie “A Plastic Ocean” in partnership with the Surfrider Foundation-South Jersey Chapter. This year, the school continues to strive toward ending single-use plastics. With input from student representatives, the green team voted to end the use of all plastic straws for grades 3-6 (unless requested for special needs). The ban includes breakfast and lunch. Both Cape May City Elementary School and Cape May City have achieved silver-level certification in the Sustainable Jersey and Sustainable Jersey for Schools programs respectively.
Compostable trays and silverware are more environmentally-friendly options than Styrofoam trays and single-use plastic utensils. These schools that are working to become more sustainable are an inspiration to others. Over 55 percent of New Jersey public school districts are participating in Sustainable Jersey for Schools. From energy audits to integrating sustainability into student learning to boosting recycling efforts, over 3,900 sustainability actions were completed by schools and districts working to achieve certification in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program.