If you’ve ever eaten in a school cafeteria, you have probably encountered a spork packet. It’s a little plastic bag that typically comes with a combo spoon-fork utensil, a straw, and a tiny folded napkin, all in one convenient packet. It is ready for a student to grab and have everything they need– or don’t need.
At best, the contents of the spork packets may get 15 minutes of use before being tossed and persisting for centuries in a landfill or as litter. At worst, the spork or straw may not get used at all when a student needs only a napkin. Single-use plastics comprise half of the roughly 300 million tons of plastics produced each year globally, according to the UN Environment Program. Much of this plastic is either not recyclable or just not recycled and instead finds its way to all areas of the Earth. If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by weight by 2050.
Oak Park School District 97 (D97) decided to take action. In the fall of 2018 district administration, Seven Generations Ahead, food service staff, Green Team parent leaders, and students concerned about plastics pollution collaborated to unbundle spork packets. Since D97 food service (as well as food packaging and sporks) is provided through D200 Oak Park and River Forest High School, collaboration among both district food services was key. Instead of being provided a spork packet, students are now offered individual sporks and napkins that they can take or leave, and straws are only provided upon request or for students with special needs. This small change in the spork packet has resulted in a big reduction in plastic waste.
While more data is needed in order to fully analyze the long term waste reduction and its anticipated cost savings, early data indicates a significant reduction in waste. After packet elimination, about 63,000 individual sporks were used district-wide during last October and November. This means that 63,000 little plastic bags and nearly that many straws were completely eliminated from the waste stream during just those two months as a result of this switch. According to one lunchroom manager, “reactions from staff and students have been great… and I feel we are making a difference.” The reduction of plastic waste also fits into PlanItGreen, the sustainability plan for Oak Park and River Forest, which has a goal of reducing overall materials generated by 1% annually.
D97 has long been a leader in environmental sustainability. All ten D97 schools commercially compost lunchroom food scraps. Three schools have dishwashers and use washable trays and silverware; the other seven schools have compostable trays. But as this photo from a D97 school waste analysis shows, even in a school where commercial composting and recycling was the norm, the trash generated in a single day from spork packets was significant and preventing the school from getting to zero waste.
While the use of individual sporks is still necessary in the schools without dishwashers, this change with spork packets and straws is a huge step in the right direction. New dishwashers are anticipated for an additional two schools in the district when they are renovated this summer, bringing the total number of D97 schools with dishwashers (and no sporks whatsoever) back up to five, half of the district’s schools.
Activism for single-use plastic elimination is gaining momentum across the globe, including local movements like Shedd the Strawstarted here in Illinois. The unbundling of spork packets in D97 schools to minimize plastic waste reflects leadership and commitment to sustainability and contributes to the global momentum toward a healthier planet.