Changes precipitated by student group go district-wide

Nine Waldo County schools go straw-free starting Monday

Posted:  Sunday, June 10, 2018 - 8:45pm

BELFAST — Nine Waldo County schools will be entirely straw-free starting June 11, thanks to the dedication of student activist group Belfast Refuse, Reuse, Recycle (BRRR) with active branches in both Troy Howard Middle School (THMS) and Captain Albert Stevenson School (CASS).

While the students’ hard work is what precipitated the change, were it not for Perley Martin, RSU 71 food service director, the path to plastic-free could have been a lot more challenging.

Martin, who began working at THMS in 1999, was first approached by the group over a year ago, while they were still attending CASS. After attending a meeting with the group and learning about the reality of plastic pollution, he said he knew that he could be a big help in reducing the amount of plastic tossed by area schools.

Though the BRRR kids may have been the catalysts for removing plastic from school lunchrooms, the very first student to approach him with concerns over the environment was a student named Amanda Dickey roughly 10 years before, who was worried about the impact styrofoam being used and discarded by area schools.

Suggested ways to help reduce plastic pollution from the National Resources Defense Council:
1. Stop using single-use plastics like plastic bags, plastic wrap, plasticware, straws, and coffee cup tops. Use reusable versions instead. 

2. Stop buying water. Use a reusable bottle instead. 

 3. Boycott microbeads, which are the little plastic scrubbers found in many beauty products, including toothpaste and facial scrubs. 

 4. Cook more instead of ordering takeout meals, if you do order out, don't take plastic cutlery. 

 5. Recycle [and make sure you're sorting in line with local ordinances].

 6. Buy in bulk.

 7. Put pressure on manufacturers by writing letters about plastic packaging or choosing more eco-conscious varieties. 

 8. If you see a piece of plastic or styrofoam pick it up.  

“She was doing a research paper on styrofoam, which we were using for lunch trays….. She was concerned about the styrofoam and I was concerned as well,” Martin said. Most of the RSU 71 schools use hard plastic reusable trays, while CASS uses biodegradable trays at the moment, though they too will make the switch to hard plastic come fall.

“I’ve done it kind of slowly, so it doesn’t have a big budget issue. Whether its purchasing product that is more expensive and labor costs, I’ve done it very slowly,” he said.

As for how the kids will react to their now strawless cafeterias, Martin isn’t overly concerned.

“I think using straws has just been by habit, you know, there they are,” he said. It hasn’t always been easy to find drink containers that work sans straw, particularly with juice containers, but Martin said the desired items can pretty much always be found if food service directors look hard enough.

“Believe it or not, not all distributors offer the same items. You just gotta get out there, there are items out there, you just have to find somebody that can meet you needs, your supplying needs,” he said.

Martin said there have been some parents who have approached him, operating under the impression that there was some regulation that food services had to offer straws, which he said just isn’t the case.

“There’s no laws or rules or regulations that require us to offer a straw. We certainly want to offer a straw when it's needed, but I don’t see any need.”

According to EcoWatch, over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole last century, and 50 percent of the plastic we only use once before throwing it away. Enough plastic is thrown away every year to circle the earth four times and we currently only recover five percent of the plastics we use.

It is estimated that the average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year, making it around 10 percent of the total waste we create as individuals. Thirty-five billion plastic bottles are also thrown away by Americans every year.

It takes 500-1,000 years for a single piece of plastic to degrade and billions of pounds can be found in the ocean, marking up to 40 percent of the oceans surfaces around the world. Eighty percent of plastic found in oceans enters via land.  

While Monday is the official start day for RSU 71 to be entirely straw free with regard to the food service, other changes have already been made and many are underway.

“As far as plastic utensils, everybody right now is no longer using plasticware, every school has switched to real flatware. The Weymouth Elementary was the last school,” he said. Every school except THMS is using hard plastic lunch trays, with THMS currently using biodegradable trays. Starting in the fall THMS will also swap to hard plastic lunch trays.

THMS will also bring back an old position next year of a dedicated dishwasher, something they used to have before the employee retired several years ago.

While some might think that with all the changes implemented, including bringing back an old position, surely the RSU 71 food service budget had seen an increase, Martin said that is not the case.

“I haven’t had to increase my budget,” he said, “in fact, my budget for next year is two percent less than my budget from this year.”

Even if there had been a slight increase in cost, Martin said that isn’t the main concern.

“There’s a huge issue with the amount of plastic and straws in the ocean and in landfills. It gets burnt, but then the ashes settle in our soil. You know, I get it, I understand it.”

Part of what has kept Martin’s budget perpetually out of the red is that the changes are implemented slowly, much the way they were when the government started leaning toward healthier lunches for kids. He said he was warned about initiatives floating around and to be prepared, which he made sure he would be. By the time the rules and regulations arrived Martin had already made the switch to wheat alternatives and both students and staff had already made the adjustment.

“I’m kind of handling the eco-friendly vision the same way. I say this all the time, that Belfast has become the hub for an eco-friendlier environment and it’s also become the hub for local farmers, and my food service program that I oversee, I’m very excited to be a part of that,” Martin said.

“I have colleagues that are food service directors that know all about Belfast and what we’re doing here. I think a lot more districts are catching on too cause you’re hearing about it all the time.”

Erica Thoms can be reached at