Life at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) has changed drastically this past year. Disinfecting protocols and eating lunch in classrooms have been enacted to curb the spread of COVID-19. While disposable products, such as plastic gloves and wipes, and bagged lunches have proven to be a time-efficient method of mitigation, they have come at an environmental cost.
With growing concerns about climate change and pollution, plastic usage during the pandemic is causing long-term environmental effects.
Science teacher Debra Swanson said, “People are using single-use plastics as opposed to things that can be reused. It is a huge pollution problem. Single-use plastics are way up. Also you think about all the PPE, or personal protective equipment, like masks — everyone is wearing disposable masks. They all have plastic, and how much of that ends up in the waste stream?”
Ms. Swanson sees cutting back as the solution.“Everybody knows the three Rs, to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It is the reducing that we really need to work on,” she said. “We need to start using less and consuming less so we don’t produce the waste, and when we do make it then we reuse it, and finally as a last option we recycle it.”
A significant contributor to the school’s waste is the adjustments made to its meal program. In October, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would be extending its free meal program to the end of the 2020-2021 school year. With meals being eaten in classrooms and at home, bagged lunch was the easiest option.
However, the bagged lunches require more packaging. Although the cafeteria uses some biodegradable and recyclable products, packaging is logistically challenging.
Meal coordinator Mercedes Fereirra said, “It’s really expensive, for one, and it’s really hard to get things that will hold hot foods that are biodegradable because then they decompose. Basically, when you’re biodegrading, that’s what happens. It’s getting hot and it’s getting wet, and then it falls apart.”
The cafeteria donates its extra meals to Island Community Services — typically 25 out of the approximately 200 meals made per day — and composts using a bin outside of the cafeteria. Since students and staff are currently eating lunch in their classrooms, the majority lack access to composting facilities.
Senior Colleen Carroll and sophomore Julia Sayre decided to start a project making infographics and putting compost bins around the hallways to get the school composting again. “We were collecting, I think, 3,000 pounds a week before COVID, but now nobody’s collecting. All of our food waste goes into the trash,” said Colleen. “I’m hoping that Julia and I will spark an interest in more students to see the importance of composting, and be able to educate them more about the system.”
As for more environmentally-friendly alternatives to single-use products, principal Sara Dingledy says that although they have been considered, the primary focus of administration this year has been creating a smooth transition into the hybrid model. “There were some trade-offs to opening school, and one of them was an abundance of sanitation, and that yields wipes, spray, and gloves,” she said.