That’s how many plastic straws Miami-Dade County Public Schools was sending to landfills every school year, according to estimates by administrators.
This school year, that number is zero.
Starting last August, the district eliminated plastic straws from the utensil packets distributed during breakfasts, lunches and after-school meals. Now, students get sporks and napkins, and those who need straws can ask for the paper variety.
It’s one in a series of steps the nation’s fourth largest school district has taken to become more environmentally sustainable. With 345,000 students and 40,000 employees, simple policy changes can make a big difference.
Five years ago, the district swapped out polystyrene foam lunch trays for compostable paper plates. After that, a high school student from MAST Academy started a petition to get plastic straws out of cafeterias.
“This was student-driven,” said Penny Parham, an administrator with the district’s food and nutrition department.
The district is also working on replacing the plastic spork with a compostable and biodegradable utensil. Audra Wright, another administrator with the food and nutrition department, said the district has not yet found a vendor that can meet the demand.
“Even though a lot of companies and school districts are looking to implement greener practices, we have to have the manufacturers catch up to our thought process,” she said. “So it's going to happen, but it's going to take place over time.”
Parham added: Sanitation is also a concern. Now, the spork and napkin are wrapped in plastic, which keeps them safe from contamination during handling. There would need to be a way to quickly distribute the green utensils to students without risking introducing germs.
The school district hasn't seen a cost savings from the elimination of straws yet but expects to eventually.
The district has an existing contract with a vendor that provides the utensil packets. So, for now, the vendor is simply not putting plastic straws in the packets, and the cost is the same. When the district is able to solicit a new contract for utensil packets, administrators expect to negotiate a lower price.
“The more sustainable we can make our operations, and the less we spend on creating waste and garbage,” Parham said, “the more money we have for … our employees and really doing a great job in getting high quality, healthy, fresh foods.”
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