L.A. Unified replaces plastic foam cafeteria trays with paper ones

Students at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Feliz look up at a sculpture they made of 1,260 plastic foam cafeteria trays. The nonbiodegradable trays are being replaced with paper ones.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Lunch items in the Los Angeles Unified School District have been in flux in recent years — for example, swapping pizza for whole-grain spaghetti — but the sagging plastic foam tray that carried the food survived for decades.

That changed too earlier this month, when the foam was switched out for recyclable paper trays at all district schools.

District and city leaders made it official during a Thursday lunch-hour announcement at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Feliz, where two years ago the activism of some sixth-graders kicked off the effort to ban plastic foam trays.


Martin Gonzalez, 13, said it all started in Ann Holtzinger’s sixth-grade class. They were studying the effects of trash on the environment, and the students learned that the cafeteria’s plastic foam trays weren’t being recycled. They raised money to buy their own bright yellow reusable plastic trays.

“It was weird at first, but you get used to it,” Gonzalez said. “I think some people were actually jealous.”

Groups of students also stationed themselves near trash cans and plucked used plastic foam trays from the hands of other students before they could be trashed.

“Yeah, it was gross,” said Desiree Laguna, 13.

Then the class strung together 1,260 of the discarded trays and hung them from a giant acacia tree in the center of campus.

That got everyone’s attention, said David Binkle, the district’s deputy food services director.

“The students made a statement, we looked at it, and they’re right,” Binkle said.

The district uses about 40 million trays a year. The new paper tray is about 3 to 4 cents cheaper per unit and saves the district about $5 million to $6 million, Binkle said. King Middle and every other school in the district have now adopted the compostable paper trays.