Last school year in Mrs. Courtney VandeBunte’s Marine Science class, her students created projects focusing on the major environmental pollutants called microplastics- small pieces of plastic broken down from materials such as bottle caps and Styrofoam trays.
Mrs. VandeBunte explained the reasoning behind the microplastics project, “The Microplastics Awareness Project was inspired after talking with Dr. Maia McGuire from University of Florida. Dr. Asher (Mrs. Ellen Sperber) and I originally planned on talking to her about Sea Oats, but discovered the issue with microplastics in the oceans and that by 2050 there would be more pieces of plastic in the ocean than fish.”
A group of four students; Haylie Shiflett, Abigail Register, Matthew Drummond, Felicia Martinez and Mrs. Sperber’s second grade class created the project idea focusing on the disposal of polystyrene, the main components of Styrofoam lunch trays. Mrs. Sperber’s 2nd grade students joined them in their journey, contributing valuable information along the way, such as the harmful effects of polystyrene.
The Flagler School’s cafeterias use Styrofoam trays to serve their students lunch. Although these trays can be recycled they usually end up in landfills, turning them into microplastics that can be harmful to humans and wildlife. All recyclables have a symbol at the bottom, three arrows in the shape of a triangle with a number in the center. These numbers range from one to seven. Styrofoam normally has the number six in the triangle which means it easily contaminates the food. Due to these contaminations some cities have either fully or partially banned Styrofoam.
These Styrofoam trays have both positive and negative effects. The positive impacts are keeping food warmer, and it costs less than the alternative. The negative impact that comes with using Styrofoam trays are oceanic pollution, contamination of food, and being the fifth largest hazardous waste creator.
Polystyrene chemicals can contaminate food by contact with the Styrofoam trays. When the food is heated up in the Styrofoam containers it can increase the dosage of polystyrene chemicals. These doses from the transfer of chemicals are low, but they are repeated daily for students that get school lunch. At Old Kings Elementary School they use 101,524 Styrofoam trays in one year. Considering a student who has been attending this school system since kindergarten, that adds up to a lot of polystyrene exposure by their senior year of high school.
Haylie Shiflett commented on what they learned during this project, “We did extensive research on different materials that could be used (Sugarcane, plant fiber, and recycled newsprint) as well as their health effects on the environment/human body. The more we learned about the negative effects of polystyrene, the more determined we became to change our county’s perspective.”
To get this change, the students collected over 800 signatures to petition against the use of Styrofoam trays. They created a presentation to go along with the signatures in order to persuade Food Service Director, Mrs. Angela Torres. Mrs. Torres immediately started to work with the two groups of students in order to run a pilot program with the “Bio-de-GREAT-able” trays, which were the alternative choice of trays.
As of September 19th they started this pilot program at both Old Kings Elementary and Flagler Palm Coast High School. To learn more about what these students accomplished, check out their The Microplastics Awareness Initiative Presentation.