Onslow County Students Turn Trash Into Treasure

Jun 14, 2013

We explain how some Onslow County students are doing their part to help the environment by transforming their Styrofoam lunch trays into recyclable material.

Onslow County students are taking a bite out of grime, working to recycle the Styrofoam lunch trays their schools throw out every day. And, boy, do they throw out a lot of trays. According to Onslow County’s Solid Waste and Landfill Assistant Director Lisa Rider, the school district goes through over 19,000 trays in a single day. To make matters worse, the trays can remain in the landfill forever.

"it is not biodegradable, it's photodegradable. And that's the big thing with plastics is that they stay in the environment for pretty much forver.  I talk about plastics like I talk about... plastics are like diamonds, they're forever."

But if the trays are so harmful, why use them in the first place? For starters, they’re inexpensive, explains Student Nutritional Director Tilwanja Lucas.

“We use Styrofoam lunch trays because, number one, they are economical; they are definitely lighter in weight for the students to handle than if we were to use the hard trays, and also labor. It takes more labor to use the washable trays, and that’s something we don’t have in Onslow County. We need lots more labor.”

Still, Mrs. Lucas knew that Styrofoam trays weren’t the environmentally sound option and began looking for a way to recycle them.

“Two years ago, when I came to Onslow County, I met with the company that supplied us with the recycling machine we are using now. At that time, we were not financially able to purchase the machine, and then we also had just the idea of when we could get one and where we would put it.”

The machine, which is about the size of a refrigerator, would silently melt the Styrofoam at low-grade temperatures, turning it into a safely disposable block of bio-fuel. The technology had yet to be perfected, however, and the project was put on the back burner. It experienced a revival when the environmentally conscious Queens Creek Elementary school of Hubert invited Mrs. Lewis to speak to their fourth and fifth grade classes about the use of Styrofoam trays.

“They invited me out to come to their classroom and when we mentioned the thermal compaction system, they were all on board. They were like ‘Well, can we get one here?’ They began to tell me all the things they were doing at Queens Creek and it was a no-brainer.”

Melissa Thomas, Queens Creek’s AIG Director, said her students jumped at the opportunity.

“My students said ‘We have to do something about it. If there’s a solution like this out there, we have to take on and we have to advocate for this thermal compaction system for Onslow County schools.”

They began by brainstorming ways to raise money for the then-borrowed machine.

“They actually came up with a plan, that if every student from Onslow County donated one dollar as a deliberate act of kindness, then we would actually be able to raise enough money to purchase thermal compaction units for Onslow County schools. And so that’s the beginning of the project.”

Then, to spread awareness, the students designed a public service announcement and had it posted to both the Queens Creek website and school district’s website, and They sparked interest in expanding the project to other schools, efforts that ultimately raised over $2,000 to cover part of costs for the $14,000 machine. All of this work didn’t go unnoticed by district officials, either:

“They were very impressed with the notion that students wanted to advocate for this and they were very moved by their passion and so they actually have agreed to purchase the remaining balance and actually purchase a thermal compaction system for Onslow County schools for next year.”

Unfortunately, a single unit can only recycle about 700 trays at a time.

“One thermal compaction system is not going to be enough for all of the schools in Onslow County. We would LOVE to see this kind of a system in districts of schools so they’re able to share those thermal compaction systems.”

With plans to expand the project, it’s possible that next year another unit will be placed in the county.