In October 2012, Every Tray Counts presented a proposal to Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent, Support Services, for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, to replace polystyrene trays in the school lunchroom with a more suitable  tray option. While the school district had not begun to tackle this issue, they were already looking at issues like this throughout the district. They agreed that, if Every Tray Counts could find a willing school, principal, parents, teachers, teacher assistants, and custodial staff, a pilot could be launched.

Reviewing the summary of meals served in CHCCS (below) an opportunity presented itself in making a difference. Of the 1 million meals served in the district, 777,000 of those meals were served on polystyrene trays were served in FY11-12!

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools

Daily Participation Summary

From: 8/25/2011 – To: 6/8/2012

SiteID Free Red Paid Teachers Adults SFS Catered Total Free Red Paid Teachers Adults SFS Catered Lunch
304 14,723 787 3,623 8 19,141 33,625 2,329 18,655 1,371 403 56,383 75,524
305 8,673 711 428 54 1 9,867 21,101 2,568 9,681 798 1,156 35,304 45,171
308 8,014 355 435 56 1 8,861 23,336 1,532 11,139 351 614 36,972 45,833
309 4,671 370 1,139 27 6,207 19,593 2,748 19,241 1,243 6 98 1 42,930 49,137
310 9,962 799 3,642 214 14,617 15,697 2,166 34,180 2,155 669 54,867 69,484
311 20,515 1,598 3,686 4 25,803 29,548 2,896 15,165 576 642 48,827 74,630
312 11,000 490 392 92 11,974 21,926 1,805 18,172 1,463 608 43,974 55,948
314 8,843 1,056 1,025 143 11,067 22,147 2,289 22,564 265 1,347 48,612 59,679
316 16,087 1,067 1,154 4 18,312 36,098 2,325 17,185 811 538 56,957 75,269
320 8,399 1,467 3,187 8 12 13,073 15,120 2,338 29,029 965 455 47,907 60,980
322 6,468 425 596 3 7,492 21,223 2,498 27,998 588 940 53,247 60,739
324 10,507 618 865 114 12,104 24,232 2,271 35,907 2,819 869 66,098 78,202
326 15,327 1,025 3,544 37 8 19,941 28,271 3,117 20,204 1,038 596 53,226 73,167
330 8,210 1,227 2,453 52 11,942 17,443 3,205 32,051 1,214 672 54,585 66,527
332 8,900 1,337 1,983 27 12,247 18,516 3,339 22,793 801 299 45,748 57,995
334 8,509 408 4,100 45 3 13,065 14,525 2,514 29,175 1,501 45 47,760 60,825
336 5,994 782 381 11 7,168 22,637 3,811 29,747 1,366 1,026 6 58,593 65,761
338 1,390 58 18 1,466 2,338 96 29 2,463 3,929
Total: 176,192 14,580 32,651 899 25 224,347 387,376 43,847 392,915 19,325 6 10,977 7 854,453 1,078,800


At the initial meeting on 01/15/2013, a decision was made that a waste audit should be performed prior to the pilot. This information would supply the foundation to analyze and compare the results of the actual pilot.  Much research and effort was involved in creating a successful outcome.  Research included: best lunchroom practices, tray alternatives approved for use in the lunchroom, availability of a private commercial composting service to pick up food and trays, and decisions on bins needed and how the pickup process would work.

Audit graph

A waste audit is a formal, structured process used to quantify the amount and types of waste being generated by an organization.
Information from audits will help identify current waste practices and how they can be improved.


The chart above reflects the result of the audit, showing that waste, using a commercial composter, could be reduced from 139.3 pounds to 13 pounds, a decrease of91%! With the help of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools principal, teachers and custodians, interested parents, local government staff, and a commercial composter, the pilot program at Morris Grove Elementary School exceeded initial expectations.   The original goal of replacing the polystyrene trays with compostable ones became a much larger one to take a look at all of the issues surrounding the trash cycle in the district.

In preparation for the pilot parent volunteers were enlisted as monitors to help the kids with  “What goes where” and custodial and cafeteria staff were briefed.  In addition, there were other projects going on that dovetailed easily into this pilot. Phillips Middle School had begun a project with the Phillips Recycle Team to empty the used milk cartons before throwing them in the trash. This would allow the milk cartons to be recycled instead of discarded. Organizing the timely flow of the lunch line was of utmost importance.


Pictures and other communication helped the kids understand what to do.  Pictures were placed above each bin with examples of items that could go into trash:


Along with the pilot, the school staff  incorporated waste issues into the classrooms. Science and art lessons taught the science of waste, recycling, composting, and identified the impact of waste on the earth and community. Amy Rickard also enlisted the support of upper administration to identify practices to ensure successful implementation at the school.

In the lunchroom, the kids learned quickly and became leaders in putting the waste in its appropriate place. Lunchroom staff, including the custodians and cafeteria workers, and volunteers joined into the action and identified opportunities to improve the flow of the kids, waste, and made suggestions about the products used by the cafeteria to serve the lunches! Staff and kids created signs with visual reminders of what waste went where.

Thanks to suggestions from the custodians, the messy smack-n-stack process of dumping food waste from the tray into a bin and stacking the trays was switched to having kids dump trays and food together into compost bins that could then be rolled out for disposal. This was easier for the kids and for the custodians.

The pilot occurred so seamlessly that the numbers of volunteers needed at each lunch period dwindled from 2 to 1 within a couple of weeks!

In short, waste transitioned from a hidden, smelly, and unexamined topic to a beautiful and exciting one, with tangible rewards as well! The savings and rewards that unfolded are exciting!



From “Gecko Grove”, May/June2013 Volume 5, Issue 5, a publication of the Morris Grove Elementary School PTA:

As we shared earlier, the Geckos have been working on making our cafeteria a little more green. I am pleased to tell you that our compostable trays have been a success. The students are continuing to compost their trays and leftover food, pour out leftover liquids, and recycle milk cartons, bottles, and other items. This is making a tremendous impact on our environmental footprint! We appreciate all of the parent and community volunteers who have assisted in supporting this new initiative. A special thanks goes out to our Second Graders who have provided educational messages on our morning announcements to teach everyone about our new green procedures! – “Principal’s Note”, Amy Rickard, Morris Grove Principal

  • Saved $12,000 in waste disposal costs.  The savings were achieved by reviewing current disposal practices prior to the waste audit and pilot project. This was a significant first step to finding ways to offset the additional cost of tray alternatives.
  • Reduced amount of waste going to landfill in waste audit alone, disposed trash from 139 pounds to 13 pounds by achieving recycling compliance and composting food and trays!
  • Raised awareness that polystyrene trays are a hazard and a danger to the environment and do not belong in school lunchrooms.
  • Educated students, staff, and parents that waste reduction is something we can do that positively affects our community.
  • Created momentum for staff and volunteers to look for ways to further reduce waste. For example, on nacho days, two plastic cups were used to hold the sauces. A suggestion was made to serve the sauces directly onto the trays. More waste reduced. It was that simple!


  • Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools hired a Sustainability Director.
  • Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools replaced polystryene trays with compostable long-fiber paper trays for the 2013-2014 school year, eliminating a total of 777,000 polystyrene trays.  The compostable trays were also diverted from the landfill to a commercial composter.

Chapel Hill – Current News

The composting program in the Chapel Hill Carrboro School system continues to be successful! Over 13,300 pounds have been diverted from the landfill!  The metrics presented early in the school year show impressive efforts:

-257+ volunteers
-513 hours volunteered
-87% reduction in cafeteria landfill waste
-20 bags of cafeteria lunch trash per day for 15 schools, down from 155 daily bags
-3,370 pounds composted during the first week
The District is currently organizing a parent-run school composting council, made up of one or two representatives from each elementary and middle school.  The council will meet once every 4-6 weeks, sharing feedback, ideas and acting as a liaison to the school/PTSA communities as well as ideas on how to think big-picture about waste in our schools.   This effort will go a long way to ensure that trash and other non-compostable debris is separated from the food waste and continue to build on the successes of the program to date.  Currently, the district is looking for representatives at the following schools:
Estes Hills

Please contact Dan Schnitzer, Sustainability Coordinator

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
750 South Merritt Mill Road
Chapel Hill, NC. 27516
Mobile: 919.869.4813