540,000 Sporks

Every year my students write research papers on topics of their choice and I do research along with them on a topic that interests me. This year, my topic involves researching how much plastic waste our school produces. Our school is a typical California urban high school with about 3,000 students.

About 90% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch which includes two meals a day (breakfast or nutrition and lunch). Each meal comes in an uncoated paperboard tray, must include both a meal and a drink (even if the student only wants one or the other — now I understand why I see so many unopened milk cartons around campus), and must come with a plastic-wrapped utensil set that includes a thin napkin, a tiny plastic straw, and a spork. Cafeteria employees are told to provide this with every meal even though my students report they often never even open the package before throwing it away (who needs a spork for a burrito or a straw for an unwanted drink or a drink that can be sipped straight from the carton?).

I contacted our cafeteria director and asked how many utensil sets we go through. Her response: an average of 11,000 a week.

That’s 11,000 plastic wrappers, sporks, and straws that are often never useful at all or only useful for a few minutes total before being thrown in the trash or left around campus where the wind and occasional rain can bring them to the nearby canal that feeds directly into the ocean. (We happen to be a beach city, but all drains lead to the ocean eventually — even those in middle-America).

That’s 540,000 spork packages a year at just one school, not counting utensil packs given out during summer school or our summer lunch program for the community. And we’re only one of six comprehensive high schools in our city, not to mention the smaller high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.

The environmental cost is beyond my comprehension, but the monetary cost also seems wasteful: At $10.80 per 1,000 utensil sets, we spend $5,832 per school year. For $6,750 (using a price I saw on Amazon), we could provide each student with a foldable, stainless steel camping spork. The spork could be checked out along with textbooks at the beginning of the year and turned in along with textbooks at the end of the year. Just like with textbooks, there would be a replacement fee fine given to any student who doesn’t turn it in. We charge students $1 for temporary ID stickers when they forget their IDs and $5 for replacement IDs; why not charge students 25 cents when they forget their spork and have to use a plastic one and the full cost of $2.25 when they need a replacement?

Over time, we would see several positive outcomes:

1. The reusable sporks would pay for themselves and start saving us money after two years.
2. Students would learn the valuable lesson that they can bring their own reusable items instead of opting for single-use disposables like sporks, plastic bags, cups, etc.
3. There would be less trash after lunch, especially those light plastic wrappers that fly out of trash cans and end up all over campus.

To aid my research and discover the feasability of my plan, I’ve enlisted ten students from my 5th period (after lunch) class. Each student will be given a camping spork and will be instructed to refuse the disposable spork package. At the beginning of class each day, they will fill out a brief survey that will ask things like:

Did you bring your spork today?
Did you remember to refuse the disposable utensils?
Did you take the disposable utensils? If so, why? (I didn’t get a chance to clean my spork. I lost my spork. I needed the straw. I needed the napkin. I left my spork at home. I don’t like the metal spork.)
After this experiment is over, do you anticipate continuing to use the metal spork?
What would make bringing your own utensils more convenient? (Having a pouch to carry the spork. Having a separate spoon and fork. Having access to sinks to rinse the spork near the cafeteria.)

I’m not done with the questionnaire, but I’ll post it along with the results when I get them.

I also gathered information on how many bottled drinks we sell to students and staff each month and how many juice and milk cartons are wasted each week, but I think my research for this project should stay focused on one item. I’ll post my findings when my students’ research papers are due in late January or early February.

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