Amphitheater Middle School has instituted a lunch-tray recycling program it hopes helps save the environment while also saving the district money.

The school, 315 E. Prince Road, recycles plastic foam lunch trays, cutting down on dishwashing and garbage costs.

Marc Lappitt, Amphitheater Public Schools’ food service and transportation director, said he got the idea from Phoenix-area schools and instituted it in February.

Previously, the school used a combination of plastic and plastic foam trays. Lippitt said it’s difficult to estimate the savings the program will net until it’s been through an entire semester, but identified several areas in which recycling trays cut costs.

For instance, it costs about 5 cents to wash each of about 700 trays daily with industrial equipment. Instead, the school is buying plastic foam trays for 3 cents each and has moved an employee from dishwashing responsibilities to serving.

The recycling also saves between 4 and 4.5 cents a day because the school uses 10 to 12 fewer trash bags daily. The savings is between 40 and 50 cents per day.

“It’s been very well-received at the school site,” Lappitt said. “The students and staff know how it benefits the school. All the kids have been taught how to recycle trays.”

After lunch, students place their emptied trays into a stacking cart. Custodians wheel the carts to a machine on school property called a plastic foam melting thermo compactor, which cost the district’s self-sustaining food service department $13,000. It melts the plastic foam down to 10-pound resin blocks about half the size of a parking curb. Earth Systems Tehnologies in Mesa, which sold the district the machine, retrieves the blocks and works with local and international partners to recycle them into such things as asphalt filler, furniture and picture frames.

“I think it’s great from all sides of the evaluation,” Lappitt said. “When you look at why you do things from a business standpoint or from an ecology component, you have 1,800 less garbage bags a year going into the ground. That’s big.”

There is potential to expand the program to other schools in the district, but no firm plans for now. Marana Unified School District and Flowing Wells Unified School District do not have lunch tray recycling programs.

Joe Wall, owner of Earth Systems Technologies, said he works with 23 or 24 school districts throughout Arizona and New Mexico. He said schools he works with save between $3,000 and $5,000 a year on garbage bags alone.

Wall said what’s holding back districts from investing in the program is the lack of upfront funds to buy the recycling machine.

Tassi Call, Amphitheater Middle School principal, said the school has used the program as an educational opportunity.

“We represented it to our kids and talked about what we were doing — how much garbage we were starting to reduce in our school,” she said. “The kids really bought into it. Middle school students are very earth-conscious and want to do anything they can to help.”

There are other benefits in addition to the savings, Call said.

“The kids are more conscientious about where they put garbage,” she said. “Before, they used to toss garbage kind of anywhere. Now that they are recycling, they are putting effort into making sure the trays are in the bins. They don’t throw it on the ground. They are purposeful about dumping their food in the garbage. We’re not seeing as much litter.”

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or