SALIDA — Foam trays, a staple of lunch lines and landfills, have a new shot at respectability here, where a cutting-edge recycling program melts dirtied meal toters into light bricks of reusable material.
Puffy white means green for the Salida Union School District, about $15,000 in annual savings per school, paying off the initial investment in just a bit more than the first year.
Melting the soiled trays does away with the bulk of cafeteria waste, said Nutrition Services Director Billy Reid. Not satisfied with that, he developed a system to grind and dehydrate what's left into a fertilizer concentrate, virtually eliminating it all.
"It all" equaled 350 pounds a day that needed to be hauled away, he said. "If we can help the environment, if we can save money for schools and take zero waste to landfills, why wouldn't we?" Reid said.
Salida bales its cardboard and recycles other plastics, as many districts do. But it is the first school district in the state to use the foam compactors, Reid believes.
Recycling just makes sense, he said. "It's not a lot of money, but it's revenue, and we don't have the hauling fees," Reid said. Those fees cost the district about $45,000 last year.
"It melts. It doesn't burn," said Mike Jericoff, part of the cafeteria team that uses the foam compactors. He's training kids to dump their recyclables and stack their trays after lunch.
Sal Lopez fills the unit and calibrates the temperature — 385 degrees seems about right, he said.
Stanislaus Union and Denair Unified, which contract with Salida for Reid's services, also will use the smelters that reduce foam trays and packing peanuts by 95 percent, according to the Western Recycling Technologies website.
Modesto City Schools has applied for a grant to get recycling receptacles at all its 34 campuses, said district spokeswoman Becky Fortuna. The district "is actively looking into all recycling options, including the recycling of Styrofoam trays," she said.
Turlock Unified uses biodegradable paper products, not Styrofoam, said spokeswoman Janet Pohl-Schollenberg.
Reid said he did the research. Styrofoam, at 3 cents a tray, is far cheaper than even reusing plastic trays. He estimates the per-tray washing cost of water, power and chemicals at 7.2 cents. Biodegradable trays are 8 to 12 cents each and, he added, usually end up being bagged and taken to landfills.
"Lo and behold, I've found Styrofoam to be the most recyclable," Reid said.
He has taken waste reduction even further, connecting grinders and dehydrators to create a mega-mulch maker back at his central kitchen.
From a loading dock, a lift raises garbage cans full of milk cartons and uneaten food — considered biohazards in the waste world — and Clifford Von Gursten pushes the refuse into a wet grinder.
After being chopped into a slurry, water is pumped off the chewed-up grunge and reused, and the muck rolls into a dehydrator. Six to nine hours later, Von Gursten pours out a small clump of nitrogen-rich shavings from a day's worth of nonrecyclable cafeteria waste.
From about 350 pounds of garbage, Reid said, "I'll get three-quarters of a pound of this. It fits in a Zip-loc bag."
A week's worth of cafeteria waste, roughly six garbage cans a day for each of the district's four schools, turns into one garbage can of fertilizer concentrate. One part shavings to six parts extender is about right for the landscape, he estimated.
"I'll never buy a garbage bag again," Reid said.