Every day during the school year, tens of thousands of kids eat lunch off of disposable Styrofoam trays in the Montgomery County Public Schools.

A group of students at Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park think that’s a really bad idea for several reasons, including that the trays aren’t recyclable and Styrofoam is made of stuff that is suspected to cause cancer.

And that’s why the Young Activist Club, an afterschool club for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, has been waging a three-year battle to convince MCPS officials to get rid of Styrofoam lunch trays at their school.

The club’s No Styrofoam Campaign is calling for the Board of Education to approve a pilot project to replace the disposable Styrofoam trays with washable trays at the school. The group, usually numbering 15 to 25 students, has even raised $10,000 through a variety of fund-raisers to pay for reusable trays and a school dishwasher, including its operation costs for a year.

But the club has been stymied in its efforts. So members decided they’d better inform Dr. Joshua Starr, the new MCPS superintendent, about their cause. Four students attended a meet-and-greet session with Starr in June at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

Handing out lunch trays bearing short messages against the use of Styrofoam, the students presented their case directly to Starr.

“It was a very positive meeting,” says club adviser Nadine Bloch, whose daughter, Margot, just graduated from fifth grade at Piney Branch. “We’re really excited that there’s new leadership.”

The club is hoping for good news this year after a small string of successes. In 2010, it convinced the City Council of Takoma Park to stop using buying and using Styrofoam cups and plates. The Piney Branch school’s PTA followed suit by resolving not to use the stuff, either.

But the school board has been resistant.

After presenting a feasibility study to the board in late 2009, the club was told by then-Superintendent Jerry Weast that buying and staffing a dishwasher for the school would cost nearly seven times as much as the group proposed. It was not a responsible use of school resources, he said in a memo to the school board.

Polystyrene trays have been used in schools since dishwashers were removed 25 years ago to save money. Weast said that MCPS’s food and nutrition service “continually reviews” options for replacing the trays, but “these options have become very expensive over the years.”

There’s no way that the food service could afford to switch without significantly increasing the cost of student meals, the memo says.

“Although there appear to be some compelling arguments for discontinuing the use of polystyrene trays, the trays continue to be safe, affordable, and are disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner,” Weast wrote.

The trays are burned at the county incinerator in Dickerson in a process that ends up producing electricity, according to Weast and the school board.

Meanwhile, the club is broadening its aim and has met with County Council members, asking them to consider banning the use of council funds to buy Styrofoam serving ware.

While the club may not succeed in convincing MCPS to get rid of the trays, they have been learning valuable lessons about how to research an issue, advocate for a cause and deal with the media. “They did a lot of outreach,” Bloch says.

That, in itself, must be considered a success.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com