Little Miami recycling effort, sparked by students, takes a bite out of cafeteria waste

Machine will keep 125K foam trays from landfill

MORROW, Ohio -- Little Miami Local Schools recently became a forerunner in recycling, thanks to a research project by five local students. The district this school year began using a StyroGenie machine -- the first in the state -- to recycle foam lunch trays.

The machine, which is manufactured by Georgia-based Foodservice Sustainability Solutions, uses a thermal densification process to return the trays to a liquid resin. The resin is then cooled and formed into small blocks that the district ships to a processing facility in Oregon, where they’re broken down to be reused in foam products.

“We do make efforts to do a lot of recycling in our district,” said Little Miami Food Service Director Rachel Tilford.

Although Tilford made the call to purchase the $15,000 machine using surplus food service funds, she might not have found out about it if not for three Little Miami Junior High students.

From left, Aaron Horak, Rhett Bendure and Kyle Evers-Smith hold the first densified blocks of cafeteria trays from Little Miami High School's StyroGenie. (Photo provided)

Seventh-graders Aaron Horak and Kyle Evers-Smith and eighth-grader Rhett Bendure, along with two Kings students, began researching trash and recycling last fall for a FIRST LEGO League challenge.

FIRST LEGO League is an alliance between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and LEGO through which youths compete in theme-based challenges. The students use STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills to create inventions and program robots to perform tasks related to the themes.

Faced with the task of developing a solution for a trash-related problem, the Little Miami and Kings team -- Masters of Programming Insanity, or MPI -- began looking into foam tray disposal.

“We realized that it’s a common thing that impacts all of us,” Bendure said.

Students use foam trays for lunch in Little Miami High School and Salem Township Elementary. The rest of the district’s buildings have plastic trays, which are washed and reused.

As part of their research, Horak, Bendure and Evers-Smith interviewed Tilford extensively on topics like the cost of trays and dumpsters.

“These young men were very diligent … in their whole process of seeking their information,” Tilford said.

The team members also researched the topics online, and in doing so learned about the StyroGenie, which they mentioned to Tilford. She was so intrigued, she began researching the machine herself and, while in Texas to see family during winter break, visited a school that uses one. Between seeing the machine work and hearing a presentation from MPI team members about its potential benefits, she was sold on the idea.

While the students presented their analysis to the district and also received a Champions Award for it at a regional FIRST LEGO League competition, they didn’t really expect their pitch to become a reality.

“I truly was amazed,” Horak said. “I had no idea that our school was actually applying this idea."

“I was thinking, 'We really actually made a difference,'” Evers-Smith said.

The StyroGenie has only been in use at the high school since September, but its impact is already noticeable. While students already stacked their trays to minimize the trays’ volume in the trash, they must now take more care to clear the trays of waste, using separate garbage cans for food and paper waste.

“It’s really changed the way they handle all of their recyclables now … in the lunch room,” Tilford said.

By using the machine, the district expects to reduce the number of foam trays going into landfills this school year by approximately 125,000.

The school dumpsters also will not need to be emptied as frequently, reducing waste disposal costs for the district. While food service and custodial staff members are still gathering data to determine their savings, Tilford estimated that the high school now has about half as much trash going into dumpsters on a daily basis.

Depending on the success of the StyroGenie at the high school, the district may invest in one for Salem Township Elementary in the future as well, she said.

“This is amazing that we could do something for our school to help,” Bendure said.

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