A ‘new’ way to eat: NHS ditches plastic utensils

  • Reusable trays sit next to Northampton High School’s dishwasher. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Mali Finch, left, and Gretchen Saveson, right, raise money last spring for the Northampton High School Environmental Club’s efforts to buy reusable metal utensils for the school’s cafeteria. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 7/19/2017 12:08:04 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Last spring, the Environmental Club at Northampton High School began looking for ways to reduce the waste their school generated every day.

“We were looking for ways to make our school more sustainable,” said 18-year-old Gretchen Saveson, a recent graduate who served as president of the club.

One fact in particular stood out in their search: students in the cafeteria were throwing away as many as 300 Styrofoam trays and plastic utensils each day at lunch.

The solution? Saveson and the other members of the club decided to approach John Tranfaglia, the food service director for the district, to propose exchanging plastic and Styrofoam for reusable trays and silverware.

“I was actually incredibly impressed at their dedication and knowledge,” Tranfaglia said of the Environmental Club. “They convinced me to buy into what they were looking to do.”

The school already had washable plastic trays, but the cafeteria’s dishwasher was broken so they weren’t being used at all.

“They were all sitting in a corner somewhere not being used,” Saveson said.

Tranfaglia told the students that he was planning to fix the dishwasher, so they could plan on using the trays again soon. Finding reusable utensils, however, was a little trickier.

Food services in public schools across the country essentially function as small businesses within the school; they operate outside the school’s budget, and must generate all of their own revenue.

While there might have been money to fix the dishwasher, it was harder to find the funds to purchase all the knives, forks and spoons needed to do away with one-time-use utensils.

So Tranfaglia made a deal with the students: he would concentrate on getting the dishwasher running, and they would raise money for and collect silverware. The students began selling baked goods at local tag sales and put utensil collection bins at local businesses while Tranfaglia worked on the dishwasher.

“It worked surprising well, lots of people were getting rid of old camping utensils,” Saveson said.

They soon ran into a problem. Many of the utensils they collected had plastic handles, which would not hold up under the dishwasher’s hot water.

After that realization set the group back in their collection efforts, they eventually reached the magic number of 600 forks, knives and spoons that Tranfaglia thought would be necessary to make the switch to reusable utensils.

In March, Saveson said, the cafeteria began using the new utensils and trays.

“Overall I think everyone was very supportive of it,” Saveson said of her classmates’ reaction to the new metal utensils.

Tranfaglia, for his part, gives all the credit to the Environmental Club for making the transition possible.

“Those girls and boys were fantastic in their approach,” he said. “This is really all the kids’ doing, they were definitely the catapult to make sure this happened.”

“I think it just starts with someone who is really passionate about the environment and about making change,” said 17-year-old Mali Finch, who also helped lead the club’s efforts. “Individuals need to know that they can make a difference.”

There are, however, further challenges to keeping the reusable system in place in the cafeteria — namely, making sure students don’t lose or throw away much of the silverware.

That was a large challenge in the previous two districts where Tranfaglia worked. He said the rapid loss of silverware led to the failure of efforts to switch to reusable utensils.

Tranfaglia doesn’t expect that to be the case at Northampton High, based on how few were lost last spring. He expects that when enough utensils do eventually go missing in the years to come, the Environmental Club will continue fundraising and collecting forks, knives and spoons.

“It’s not a super noticeable change,” Saveson said of the change to the cafeteria. Though it’s not that noticeable, however, she said the change is incredibly important.

As the generation who will inherit a planet increasingly at risk from climate change and devastating pollution, Saveson said it’s up to young people to push for more environmentally-friendly practices.

Participating in a successful environmental campaign with a clear and obvious end result has inspired the club’s members to continue working toward a greener future.

“There’s just no way that the way we’re living now is sustainable, so it kind of falls on us to make the changes,” Saveson said. “Every little change I guess contributes something.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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