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Schools pick plastic for milk

March 01, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

TRI-STATE -- For one part of the paper-vs.-plastic debate, Washington County Public Schools has chosen a side.

Paper is out and plastic is in -- for milk containers.

The switch, which took effect about a month ago, lets the school system recycle more, said Jeffrey Proulx, the school system's supervisor of food and nutrition services.

Also, many think milk tastes better when it's packaged in plastic, Proulx said, pointing to a noticeable jump in sales after the change.

The district is paying more for milk -- 22 cents per unit for milk in plastic containers vs. 15 cents for milk in paper containers -- but a grant covers the additional cost.

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Proulx said a $360,000 grant from the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association locks Washington County into plastic milk containers for two years.

Of that, $250,000 is in cash and $110,000 is in recycling containers.

Proulx said the school district will use some grant money to pay for another initiative.

The school board has agreed to spend $45,924 on 10,320 polycarbonate plastic, compartmented cafeteria trays. Four lower bids were rejected because the trays didn't meet National Sanitation Foundation specifications.

When the trays arrive in late March or early April, they'll be used in Washington County's elementary and middle schools.

Proulx told the school board last month the new trays are resistant to cuts and won't shatter, and are expected to last 15 to 20 years.

Food and Nutrition Services, which is self-supporting, tries to find ways to cut costs and keep lunch prices reasonable, Proulx said in an interview.

A test at Clear Spring Elementary School will look at whether stainless steel flatware should be used instead of plastic silverware. The main question will be if children remember not to throw utensils in the trash.

Members of North Hagerstown High School's Environment Club said they support the district's increasing focus on environmentalism in these areas.

The club is working on a contest to reward people who recycle at lunchtime.

During a recent after-school meeting, there was only one strong opinion in the club for or against the taste of milk in plastic containers.

"It tastes fresh," said senior Christina Heard, the club's vice president. "It used to taste like cardboard."

Heard said she didn't drink milk at lunch. Now that it's in plastic, she buys two containers.

Proulx said milk sales went up 63 percent in early February, when plastic containers were introduced, compared to average daily sales in January.

Today's children are used to getting drinks in plastic containers, which are easier to reseal, keep beverages colder and better protect flavor, he said.

Paper milk containers are coated with a wax-like substance that doesn't protect flavor as well and keeps containers from being recycled, he said.

The National Dairy Council, which is promoting plastic over paper, said in a summary sheet that milk bottles made with high-density polyethylene resin are recycled about 33 percent of the time nationwide.

The plastic resin can be transformed into long-lasting products, such as playground equipment, while milk cartons have low value in the recycling market, the council's summary says.

Berkeley County Schools in West Virginia looked into using plastic milk containers, but it was too expensive to recycle them, said Carolyn Barnett, the school system's nutrition program director.

Morgan County (W.Va.) Schools tried plastic for the 2007-08 academic year. The experiment went well, but it increased the per-unit cost from about 13 cents for paper to about 23 cents for plastic, said Kristie Randall, the district's director of child nutrition and health services.

"The kids said that the milk actually tasted better," Randall said.

Two negative side effects came up -- younger children spilled the top-heavy plastic containers more often and older children made mischief by putting lids back on empty bottles and squeezing the bottles, sending the lids flying.

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