Posted by Foundation 3D Studio Instructor Debby Lee Cohen,

Styrofoam (used) Tray Project: “No Tray Left Behind” from School of Design Strategies on Vimeo.

Students from my 3D Studio, Body in Time class constructed a sculpture made from about one thousand used Styrofoam* (polystyrene) trays. The dirty compartmentalized trays were collected (and washed) from NYC Department of Education schools, including PS 41, in the West Village, NEST+m on the Lower East Side and PS 163 in the Bronx. The intention of the project was to communicate the enormity of the problem posed to the environment and our children’s health by the continued use of these trays.

In NYC alone, 850,000 trays are disposed of daily (4 million weekly!) from our public schools. Styrofoam* (or polystyrene) trays take hundreds or maybe thousands of years to decompose. Studies have shown that styrene may leach out of these containers and contaminate hot foods, especially those with a fatty content.

This student project utilized three-dimensional design and the concept of time in art and design to frame this complex tray problem as a visual metaphor. The class had only 2 class periods and a little over a week to complete the collaborative design and construction process. Initially, working in small groups, students proposed several designs. The entire piece was constructed in the Aronson Gallery, beginning Sunday afternoon with 7 class members and completed the following morning with the entire class.

The industrial quality of the lightweight polystyrene foam trays provided an interesting material and shape for unit repetition, linear layering, and organic configurations. Structurally, creating enough weight at the base to stabilize any constructed height was challenging. Text was incorporated via cutouts and stitching.

McDonalds stopped using Styrofoam* food containers in 1990. Brooklyn Council Member Bill De Blasio has introduced legislation to prohibit the use of polystyrene in New York City agencies and restaurants. Some west coast cities, such as Portland, Seattle and Berkeley, have implemented such laws (San Francisco’s law has an affordability clause).

Several NYC DOE schools have switched to alternative bagasse or biodegradable trays by self-funding the cost increase. The best long-term solution may be to return to washable, permanent ware trays, creating green collar tray-cleaning jobs in school cafeterias. Washable trays eliminate the unending financial and environmental costs of manufacturing, transporting and disposal of one-use trays. This is a solvable problem!

*Styrofoam is a licensed trademark of its manufacturer, the Dow Chemical Company