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Schools face green dilemma
Fifth-graders Daniel Johnson and Steven Stanley have been learning about how to care for the environment since kindergarten.

"We learn to not litter and to pick up trash when we see it," Steven said as he finished the last bites of his lunch Wednesday at Golden Isles Elementary.

He was eating his meal from a non-biodegradable plastic foam tray used in the school cafeteria, something Daniel thought was a little odd, given what he has been taught.

"I feel like we are wasting a lot and throwing a lot away," Daniel said.

School lunches in Glynn County and many other counties are no longer served on plastic, washable trays. Those have been replaced with plastic foam in elementary schools and by disposable paper or plastic dishes in middle and high schools.

Amanda Kirkland, president of Glynn County's Parent Teacher Association Council, says she and other parents are concerned about the example the school system is setting for their children by throwing away thousands of paper and plastic foam plates a day.

Students are learning how to recycle and reduce trash, while at the same time creating more trash than may be necessary.

"We teach our children by being examples for them," Kirkland said. "Naturally, what is important to us will be important to them."

She has asked Janet Mitchell, director of culinary services for the school system, to talk with the PTA council about what can be done to decrease the amount of trash being created by the daily use of disposable trays.

Mitchell said she is aware of the contradiction in teaching about being good environmental stewards while creating large amounts of trash. "We are trying to move away from that," she said.

Mechanical pulpers are used at most schools to grind plastic foam trays into pieces, cutting the volume of trash to 30 percent of what it would be otherwise, Mitchell said.

St. Simons Elementary School is the only school to operate a recycling program for the trays that compacts them into cubes, which are carried off by a company and made into other products.

Mitchell would like to expand that program to other schools, but because of its $400 a month price tag, sponsors will be needed, she said.

When the school system washed plastic trays and reused them, trash volume was not as much of an issue. But ballooning water bills and the cost of replacing aging machinery led to the switch, Mitchell said.

"It posed a serious water conservation issue," she said.

Mitchell also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture school lunch program forces the school system to keep the price of everything used to produce each student meal below $1.40.

The plastic foam plates used in the elementary schools cost 2 cents each. Biodegradeable plates are at least quadruple the price, Mitchell said.

"We are always looking for ways to improve. We welcome ideas and people who might want to partner with us to recycle as much as we can," Mitchell said.

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