Washington students call for environmental change

Photo by Sean Quinn
Washington Elementary School third-graders, from left, Donovan Ruffin, Ayla Ramos and Allana Smith show the letters they wrote to the Board of Education requesting a more environmentally friendly cafeteria.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The students of Washington Elementary School are taking a stand against the use of polystyrene foam cafeteria trays, hoping to make their community safer and more environmentally friendly.

Approximately 350 students in kindergarten through fifth grade wrote letters and drew pictures for the West Orange Board of Education and Sodexo, the school district’s food services provider, to inform them of the hazards related to polystyrene. Their goal is to bring about a switch to recycled cardboard trays, which they argue are better for the environment and safer for people.

And while the students have not received responses yet — the school only mailed out the materials May 30 — project organizer and kindergarten teacher Linda Perna is optimistic that change will come. But even if nothing happens, Perna told the West Orange Chronicle that the children at least can be more environmentally conscious moving forward.

“Every child in that school, whether they get lunch or breakfast in our school or they just see it, is more aware now,” Perna said in a May 26 phone interview. “They probably never gave a second thought to the trays (before this).”

This is actually not the first time Washington School has attempted this type of change. Perna said a now-retired fourth-grade teacher named Terry Waters had led similar initiatives in the past, to no avail. Still, Perna and the rest of the building management thought the project would be a great way to teach students about persuasive writing as well as the environment for Earth Day. So they distributed Waters’ information on polystyrene to the teachers and gave them the option of following through with the assignment.

For the students who were given the opportunity to learn about the dangers of polystyrene, commonly referred to as “Styrofoam,” the experience proved to be eye-opening. Third-grader Ayla Ramos said she never thought polystyrene trays could be harmful to people who eat off them — she just worried about the food. Yet upon researching the subject, Ayla said she learned the material consists of benzene and styrene — two chemicals commonly thought to be carcinogens — that can leach into food if the polystyrene is heated.

Ayla said this bothered her since many people might not realize what they could be consuming. She hopes the project informs them.

“I want people to be aware of what we are using daily,” Ayla told the Chronicle in a May 25 interview. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt. I don’t want any animals to get hurt. I want to warn people about the chemicals that are out there.”

Third-grader Donovan Ruffin was also disturbed to learn about the health hazard posed by polystyrene trays and surprised to read about their negative impact on the environment, as well. As Donovan told the Chronicle, it takes at least 500 years for polystyrene to decompose.

That is not the only environmental fact Donovan and the other Washington students learned. Though polystyrene technically can be recycled, many companies refuse to accept the material. As a result, a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency report labeled it “non-recyclable” since it did not meet the national recycling rate of at least 15 percent. In fact, the nonprofit Carry Your Cup estimates that 25 billion Styrofoam cups are thrown out every year in the United States.

Since they are not being recycled, polystyrene products typically end up in landfills, with the EPA estimating that 2.3 million tons of the 3 million tons of polystyrene produced in the country are found there. A lot of other polystyrene finds its way into bodies of water, with the nonprofit Cafeteria Culture reporting that the nation has 270 million metric tons of plastic marine pollution. And if they are not in either location, polystyrene products can likely be found as litter in the environment, where they can break apart into little pieces. Animals can then eat those pieces, causing intestinal problems.

As troubling as those facts are, Donovan said he was glad to participate in the project so he could learn more about polystyrene. He said it was exactly the type of assignment he liked to do most at Washington because it gave him a new perspective on a subject beyond what is typically taught in the classroom.

“It gives me the chance to see the outer world,” Donovan said in a May 25 interview. “I just like the idea of thinking outside the box.”

Whether or not the project results in the desired change remains to be seen. Sodexo did not respond to requests for comment before press time May 30. And BOE President Sandra Mordecai said she could not answer questions before press time because she had not had the chance to speak with the administration due to the holiday weekend. Mordecai did say that West Orange High School students had raised the idea of eliminating polystyrene trays with the board in the past, but financial concerns prevented the change. According to Mordecai, she had not heard any request or idea from Washington School.

Regardless of what happens, the students at Washington school are eager to make a difference now that they are aware of polystyrene’s effects. Third-grader Allana Smith said children can continue pushing for cardboard trays, which can easily be recycled. Allana said they can also tell people they know about the hazards of the material. She said she has even told her mother to stop drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups.

Allana is even interested in seeing changes made at Washington beyond a switch to cardboard trays. She said that adding more recycling bins to the school would be beneficial for everyone, and Ayla and Donovan both agreed.

Seeing students so enthusiastic about helping the environment is satisfying to their teachers. At the same time, it does not surprise first-grade teacher Kathleen DeBellonia, who said her students love to learn about facts and history — even more so than fictional stories. And they are very conscious about being wasteful, she said, to the point that they even tattle on each other for such infractions as using one side of a paper.

“When I use regular water bottles, they (act) like I’m breaking the law,” DeBellonia told the Chronicle in a May 25 interview. “They really take it very seriously.”

DeBellonia said her first-graders were equally serious about this project after learning about the effects of polystyrene. Many got creative too, she said, with some drawing a half-ruined globe to represent what could happen if cardboard trays are not used. The other half depicted a beautiful Earth, indicating what could happen if the change to cardboard is implemented.

The fact that the student body was so engaged by the project pleases Perna. The kindergarten teacher said she wants the children who participated to pursue other environmental causes important to them. And with this experience, she hopes they see they can make a difference no matter how young they are.

“The best thing that could happen is that, if this does come to be, they will understand the power of their voice,” Perna said.

Editor’s note: This story was altered to make clear that, while the Board of Education had heard from West Orange High School students several years ago regarding shifting from polystyrene trays to more environmentally friendly ones, the board had not heard from Washington School on the matter.