Every Tray Counts Program Reduces School Lunch Wastes

Compostable trays replace polystyrene in many school districts
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Photo courtesy of Mick Schulte
Students at Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School sort wastes into the appropriate bins.

After lunch at Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh, 8-year-old Cameron Crooms walks his tray to the disposal area and deposits his leftover food and paper wastes, liquids and plastics into separate bins. He adds his compostable tray to the tall stack that is already there, then joins other students who are searching for pieces of plastic that could contaminate the compost bin. 

“I want to help the environment every chance I get because I want to make the world better for our future,” Crooms says. 

Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School adopted a composting program with the help of Every Tray Counts, a local nonprofit with a mission to divert compostable waste from landfills.

“Some schools think it will be too complicated for the kids,” says
Sue Scope, co-founder of Every Tray Counts. “They would say to me, ‘Don’t talk about compostables, it’s too confusing — just say throw away the food.’ But then another teacher pointed out that we’re teaching these children how to read and write. That’s hard. Separating items to throw away is not hard. It just takes some adjusting.”

Scope and her co-founder, Bingham Roenigk, started by campaigning for North Carolina public schools to change from polystyrene (or Styrofoam) trays to compostable ones in 2013. Since then, the organization has helped the Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Durham, Wake and, soon, Winston-Salem school districts approve a compostable tray for all elementary school lunches being served. 

Polystyrene never biodegrades. It does go through a photodegrading process, in which it gets smaller, but it never fully disappears, Scope says. “It also melts when you put heat on it, like [the heat from] hot mac and cheese, so part of the material goes into the food that our children eat,” she adds. “I’m not trying to be an alarmist because we don’t know the effects of these trace amounts, but it’s still an experiment that we’re subjecting our children to.” 

Every Tray Counts deliberately targets students at the elementary level, hoping younger children will be advocates for sustainability as they grow older. 

“If we teach them now, they will learn to live that way and show others,” Scope says. “Their future is what we are ruining with all this waste. They need to be shown a different way of living than what we’re used to in the U.S.”

Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School was one of the 187 schools Wake County Public School System to embrace the tray change. Its school officials were already working with Every Tray Counts to get assistance for buying the more expensive compostable trays when WCPSS Child Nutrition Services announced plans in January 2019 to replace polystyrene trays in all Wake County public schools. 

“To me, it was really monumental when Wake County made the move to compostable trays, because they don’t make changes often,” says Sean Russell, the environmental connections integration specialist at the school. “But they opted to go with it over winter break and it worked great with our plans.” 


Getting Started

Millbrook Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School was one of four Wake County public schools to take on Every Tray Count’s full pilot program, in which students learn to compost waste.

“Fortunately, our principal looked at all the options and said, ‘Let’s just go for it.’ So we jumped in — and it was a bit messy at first, but Every Tray Counts is very invested in making it a positive experience for the school, and they’ve helped out a lot,” Russell says. 

Photos courtesy of Every Tray Counts

ABOVE TOP: The Every Tray Counts program promotes the use of compostable lunch trays. ABOVE BOTTOM: Every Tray Counts focuses on students at the elementary level and encourages them to become advocates for sustainability as they grow older. 

Before beginning the composting program, the full pilot program includes an initial audit during which Every Tray Counts collects all the waste produced in the lunchroom. The organization does another audit a month after starting. 

“We were throwing out 15-24 big bags of trash every day — essentially a dumpster-and-a-half worth of trash per day. So now we just produce half a dumpster worth — about eight bags of trash,” Russell says.

CompostNow collects the school’s composted waste and uses it to create nutrient-rich soil additives for local use. Kat Nigro, head of marketing and engagement at CompostNow, sees firsthand how the schools that participate in Every Tray Count’s program make a difference. 

“The schools’ simple decision to put their organic materials into a compost bin instead of a trash can is incredibly powerful and has a measurable impact on our environment,” Nigro says. “It also teaches children about the importance of sustainability.”

According to CompostNow’s metrics, the four schools it works with in North Carolina have diverted more than 32,900 pounds of food and paper waste from landfills, and have created more than 8,250 pounds of nutrient-rich compost for local use. In all, the four schools have helped to avoid 4,290 pounds of methane emissions, which contribute to climate change.

Every Tray Counts also offers three other levels of involvement that do not involve composting. Schools interested in any of these programs can go to everytraycounts.org for tools and information, including lesson plans for teachers that focus on environmental issues.


Making a Difference

As a parent and board member for Every Tray Counts, Leigh Williams believes the nonprofit offers overburdened school systems an outside resource for pursuing more environmentally friendly practices. “It’s a relief having Every Tray Counts do this work because parents can’t do it alone,” she says. “PTAs are swamped and the schools are so busy with so many other important issues. And it matters to me that my kids are learning about these sustainability issues and seeing them practiced in the schools.” 

Scope hopes that one day all North Carolina schools will change to compostable trays and eventually move toward Every Tray Counts’ full program. “Once I show them that it’s actually cost-beneficial to use our system, schools are usually sold,” Scope says. 

The organization’s research shows that by shifting the costs from dumpsters and tips (how often the dumpster is emptied) to composting initiatives, schools save money. 

Fifth-grader Vivian Lewechi appreciates her school’s composting system because of the impact she can make through her efforts. “It starts hard but then you get used to looking at what’s on your plate and separating it,” she says. “Our school is doing something that protects the world — and our future.”


Mick Schulte is a photographer and Parenting Media Association award-winning writer in Durham, where she lives with her family of six and loves finding ways to make motherhood even more challenging than it already is.


Categories: Education, Nutrition