Old Kings Elementary School and the i3 Tech Academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School collaborated for this county-wide initiative, which came to fruition after two years of preparation and planning.
In an effort to “go green,” Flagler County Schools have transitioned from polystyrene (plastic) lunch trays to recycled paperboard ones, which will keep about 1.4 million trays per year out of Flagler County landfills.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, Nov. 1, at Old Kings Elementary School kicked off the eco-friendly initiative. But it all started with an idea that’s two years in the making.
Two years ago, a sea oats project with OKES students began with the hope of rebuilding the dunes on Flagler Beach. OKES teacher Dr. Ellen Asher and Flagler Palm Coast High School i3 Academy teacher Courtney VandeBunte joined their second-grade and 10th-grade classes together to meet with Maia McGuire, a Florida Sea Grant agent with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, so they could gather more insight for their sea oats project. Their conversation with McGuire inspired the students to expand their research to microplastics, which they learned are tiny pieces of plastic that negatively affect marine life and the environment.
“In researching methods to reduce the plastic entering our oceans, students realized the composition of our lunch trays was polystyrene,” Asher said to a crowd of Flagler Schools employees and OKES/FPC students who were decked out in green T-shirts with Flagler Schools’ “bio-d-GREAT-able” sayings on them. “Upon further investigation, it was apparent that there had to be a better choice.”
And so, the idea for lunch trays made from recycled paperboard was born.
“I don’t think words can describe just how moving it is to see students use their voice in such a positive way and know that they’re being heard and listened to and see the difference that they can make,” Asher said. “They’re amazing thinkers and doers. So, it is inspiring and heartwarming, and I love them all so much.”
During the ceremony, OKES fourth-grader Janina Aue voiced her concern that plastic is harming marine wildlife. She then thanked Superintendent James Tager and Flagler County Food Service Director Angela Bush for their help to make this project happen.
“I am an animal lover,” Aue said after the presentation. “I really care about wildlife, and I really want our oceans to be how they once were.”
Asher said about 50 students worked together to help this initiative come to life, but now, thousands of students across three counties will be joining the movement.
Nassau and Indian River Counties are making the switch alongside Flagler Schools, and there are 30 other counties who could potentially make the transition as well, Asher said.
The OKES students did cost analysis research before Flagler Schools launched the initiative. Asher said that while the recycled trays were originally going to be about four times the amount of money as plastic trays, once the two other counties (and 30 potential others in Florida) joined in on the initiative, the price dropped to “virtually the same cost [as plastic].”
In October 2016, OKES tested biodegradable lunch trays for a month, and students used the scientific method to test the effectiveness and likelihood their plan would work, Asher said. Their testing was successful, and the district listened.
“I don’t think words can describe just how moving it is to see students use their voice in such a positive way and know that they’re being heard and listened to.”
- Dr. Ellen Asher, OKES teacher
Asher said her classroom’s next goal is to brainstorm for a future of plastic-free kitchens in schools.
“Thank you for hearing our small voices and making this big change,” OKES fourth-grader Leah Ruddell said to the crowd.
To conclude the ceremony, Asher cut the ceremonial green ribbon that was strung across the paperboard trays as Superintendent Tager applauded by her side — thereby launching the first lunch in the county with the new recycled trays.