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Little Miami Junior High Blog

Student project leads to 1st foam tray recycler in state

Posted on: October 19, 2016

What began as a Little Miami middle school research project has led to a first-of-its-kind Styrofoam tray recycler in Ohio.

Little Miami is the first school district in the state to use a StyroGenie machine to create a closed-loop recycling system for the foam trays used in some of the district’s cafeterias.

LM Food Service Director Rachel Tilford, who purchased the machine for the district, said she would not have known about its existence if it had not been for three Little Miami middle school students.

In the fall of 2015, students Kyle Evers-Smith, Aaron Horak and Rhett Bendure were members of a First LEGO League team, called Masters of Programming Insanity (MPI). For competition that year, their team’s challenge was to identify a piece of trash to research and invent a solution to help the trash problem. The students chose Styrofoam cafeteria trays and researched ways on how to reduce waste in Little Miami lunchrooms. That’s when they found out about the StyroGenie.

The StyroGenie is a thermal densification machine that reverses the foam manufacturing process by removing the air and returning the trays to a liquid resin. The resin is then cooled and formed into small blocks that can then be recycled and returned to a foam manufacturing facility to be made into new trays. The StyroGenie is manufactured by Foodservice Sustainability Solutions located in Marietta, Ga., and is used in other school districts around the country, mostly on the West Coast and in Texas. Team MPI found that this machine presented a possible cost effective path to reduce the schools’ foam tray footprint by more than 90%, reducing trash volume and waste disposal costs.

Throughout their research, the students had been interviewing Tilford about the operation of the district’s cafeterias. When they let her know about the StyroGenie, her interest was piqued, so much so that she took a detour on her Christmas break and visited a school district in Houston, Texas, to see a StyroGenie in person. After seeing it in action and hearing the students’ presentation, she made the decision to purchase a machine for Little Miami. The $15,000 cost of the StyroGenie was paid for through food service dollars, Tilford said, and not out of the district’s general operating fund.

“These students interviewed me several times,” she said. “The result of the project culminated in a presentation of how the school district could improve the environment by better disposal of foam trays with the use of a StyroGenie. I was just so impressed with their hard work.”

Team MPI went on to win the Champions award at the First Lego League competition in December 2015, but more importantly, their efforts set into motion a positive change for good in their schools.

In September of 2016, Little Miami took delivery the StyroGenie and has begun a recycling program that will keep approximately 125,000 foam trays out of landfills this year. When the first load of trays was processed through the machine recently, Tilford took the first densified block to Team MPI’s school to show them the results of their efforts.

“They deserve recognition for diligently researching innovative ways to preserve our environment,” Tilford said.

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