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Pint-Sized “Cafeteria Rangers” Take Giant Bite Out Of Trash

September 14, 2016Posted by Terry Turner

Once upon a time, New York schools sent 860,000 styrofoam (polystyrene plastic) trays to landfills every day.

A group of heroic parents decided to form an organization called Styrofoam out of Schools (SOSnyc), but people were skeptical of the group’s plans to work with food directors and the bureaucracy in New York City Schools.

“We decided to educate each other,” said Debby Lee Cohen, one of the parents who created the organization. “And we decided to embrace the enemy.”

They worked hard, and the partnership took off: now, children at a number of schools have become brave soldiers in that battle, and are known by the name “Cafeteria Rangers.”

It all began when school officials and SOSnyc volunteers first created “Trayless Tuesdays,” substituting recyclable paper “boats” for the styrofoam trays just one day a week.

At the time, Deputy Schools Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said, “We estimate that we will divert 2.4 million polystyrene trays from landfills every month.”

Soon, the city’s schools banned the trays outright, and SOSnyc had a new name: “Cafeteria Culture.”

They also had a new mission, to take sustainability even farther in New York schools through a “Sort 2 Save” program, which enlists even more student Cafeteria Rangers.

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But there was another group that Cohen and her rangers had to convince to come to their side: school custodians who thought the sorting program would mean more work for them.

“I was skeptical that the Cafeteria Ranger program would make anything more than a headache for my team,” Stephen Marinaro, a custodial engineer at NEST+m middle school said on Cafeteria Culture’s website. “But we quickly saw that putting students in charge of sorting made them better at cleaning up after themselves at their tables and made less work for all of the custodians.”

What’s left is surprisingly little trash that ends up in a landfill. As you can see in the photo below, PS/MS 34 sixth graders ended up with just 13 ounces of cafeteria garbage from the entire school of roughly 400 students during a recent Zero Waste Challenge Day.

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Cohen says the process of sorting forces people — both students and adults — to realize how much waste can be recycled or reused.

“Kids can integrate this awareness into their everyday actions,” she said. 

That awareness means the rangers won’t just keep an eye on cafeteria waste, but on the environment in general, and they’re already proving that some schools can produce less than a pound of landfill waste per day.

The students drain milk cartons and recycle them along with paper napkins and plastic utensils. Food waste is composted and the trays are stacked neatly, requiring fewer bags, before joining the compost pile themselves.

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“There’s enormous potential in the lunch period,” Cohen said, “not that kids have to be learning all the time, but that they can take an active part and still have fun.”

The kids aren’t only cleaning up cafeterias and landfills, some teachers believe the project is helping kids clean up their acts, too.

“As soon as our students started their Cafeteria Ranger jobs,” Allison DeGrazia, a P.S. 34 teacher, said. “They behaved much better after lunch and we could transition back to classwork more easily.”

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