School Project Punches Out Polystyrene In Cafeteria And Community

May 26, 2017

Roxie’s On Grand recently switched takeout containers from polystyrene (right) to a biodegradable option (left).
Credit Caroline Ballard

When middle schoolers at the UW Lab School in Laramie first heard they were going to be studying garbage as part of the nation-wide initiative Project Citizen, which promotes democratic engagement, their reactions were about what you’d expect.

“Everyone in the class kind of shrugged their shoulders and went ‘okay.’ And we were all just mellowed out about it and not excited,” said Yousuf Abdel-Kader, an eighth grader at the lab school.

Students were divided into three groups that each had a separate project dealing with waste. At first, Abdel-Kader’s group decided to try and make their school cafeteria greener.

“Our first project was to get rid of Styrofoam lunch trays,” said Declan O’Connor, a fifth grader in the same group. “We researched all about it and we got rid of them in like a phone call and an email.”

After getting rid of the Styrofoam lunch trays so quickly, the kids decided to broaden their project. They reached out to Laramie’s mayor, Andi Summerville, to see what could benefit the entire Laramie community, so she visited the kids to brainstorm.

“We really kind of settled on this idea that they would work to try and encourage restaurants to use more environmentally friendly containers,” said Summerville.

Fifth grader Catcher Pannell explained why takeout containers interested them.

“Clamshell boxes are made out of what you would think of as Styrofoam but are actually called polystyrene. They’re thin and they don’t really biodegrade. We thought it was an issue that we were just putting things in our landfill that don’t biodegrade. Plus the box is 98 percent air, so we’re basically just filling an expensive hole with air and we didn’t think that seemed right,” said Pannell.

That’s when they became the “PolyPunchers.”

Mayor Summerville said before talking with them, she hadn’t really known much about polystyrene containers, and was surprised at the kids’ knowledge and the scope of their idea.

“I was very impressed with them in trying to look at all the different angles, and put themselves in other people’s shoes: the business owner’s shoes, the consumer’s shoes, in trying to come up with some suggestions that were feasible,” she said.

Middle Schoolers at the UW Lab School focused on “Garbology” – or the study of garbage – as part of Project Citizen, a nationwide initiative to engage students in civics.
Credit Caroline Ballard

The PolyPunchers identified twenty restaurants in Laramie that either didn’t recycle or didn’t use eco-friendly takeout containers. Then they created a website that mapped the restaurants, showed how green they were, and proposed solutions to their waste problem. When Abdel-Kader researched the economics of switching containers, he found that compostable containers are 10 cents more per box than polystyrene.

“It’s hard to argue that what we’re doing could help your business, and so talking to people who are obviously looking at everything from a financially viable lens it’s really hard to come up to them with an environmental lens and put it in their eye. It’s really hard,” Abdel-Kader said.

Once they had done the research, they began reaching out to businesses, including the general manager of Roxie’s On Grand, Garrett Hensley.

“I got a phone call from them, and they kind of told me a little more about what they’re doing. And you know with kids like that it’s a no-brainer for us to get behind them and show them the community supports them,” said Hensley.

Every week Hensley has to order around 80 new to-go containers for Roxie’s. Until recently, the regular takeout boxes were black polystyrene, but after talking with the PolyPunchers Hensley made the switch. Now, almost everything Roxie’s orders is biodegradable. Hensley said the only one-use plastic they still use is straws, and the restaurant is working on a solution for that, too.

Hensley grew up in Laramie, too, so he said it was important to him to show the kids that they could make a difference.

“We wanted to be one of the first and kind of help get other businesses to follow through with them. I don’t know if they’ve had responses from other businesses, but that’s definitely our aim - to help them get it started and lead the way for them,” said Hensley.  

Of the twenty restaurants, the PolyPunchers identified, eight have made eco-friendly changes like Roxie’s. Some of the kids were disappointed more restaurants haven’t taken the plunge yet, but 8th grader Hank Shaver puts it into perspective.

“Well, I think that good change of any kind is better. I mean it would have been better if we had a bigger change, but the fact that we changed something in our community is just kind of amazing,” Shaver said.

And Catcher Pannell points out the fight isn’t necessarily over.

“When we were talking to the restaurants we had a couple of them that said ‘we’ll think about it’ and Roxie’s was one of them that said ‘we’ll think about it.’ And, what, three weeks later? They switched to the compostable box. So I guess there still is a little hope that they’ll switch by themselves,” said Pannell.

On Tuesday the students will present their work to judges to be considered for Project Citizen’s national competition. But even if they don’t advance, they have partnered with the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance to make sure the PolyPunchers mission lives on.