Rhea Malik

Long Reach senior Rhea Malik, who is pioneering an overhaul of the type of food trays used for school lunches from foam to a sustainable biodegradable type, posed for a portrait where the new compost pile will be located. (Photo by Noah Scialom / March 1, 2013)

As a sophomore at Long Reach High School in Columbia, Rhea Malik did a science project on the composition rate of Styrofoam trays used in the school's cafeteria. She learned that when composted, the trays, well, didn't compost.

"They practically don't break down," said Malik, now a senior. "It was shocking to me. This is material we use regularly, but it's something that doesn't go away, and it's something we're dumping into landfills at such a fast rate."

Through her project, Malik, 17, learned that cafeteria trays made out of sugar cane, or recycled fibers, decomposed much more quickly. So she began a two-fold campaign for her school, and for the county at large: switch to biodegradable food trays and begin composting food waste.

When Long Reach students return from spring break in April, they will be the first school in the county to start composting. Malik also hopes that by next school year, Long Reach will have made the switch from Styrofoam trays to ones made of recycled, molded fiber, which can also be composted. If the program works at Long Reach, she said, she hopes a pilot is expanded the following year.

The impact would be drastic, Malik said. She estimates that Howard County — with its approximately 51,000 students — throws away about 37,000 trays a day. She based that estimate on numbers from New York City schools, where 1.1 million students throw out about 850,000 trays a day. Those trays go into a landfill, Malik said; nationwide 870,000 tons of Styrofoam go into landfills a year, she said.

Schools would save money, Malik said, by way of paying less in disposal charges for cafeteria waste, trash disposal materials and custodial fees, and they'd be reducing their carbon footprint.

"The school system could save so much money, and we could negate the negative impact on the environment," she said. "We can do all of these things."

Additionally, she said, the use of Styrofoam trays can be a health hazard.

"The negative impact for the health of students and workers regularly exposed to it was shocking to me," she said. "Polystyrene (Styrofoam) is a possible carcinogen, there's neurotoxic effects, hematological effects, so it was shocking to me. ... I was a little disgusted."

Malik has met with school and county officials to get the program off the ground, and has testified before the Board of Education. Right now, Malik is helping incorporate lessons on composting in Long Reach's culinary, environmental and science classes, and student volunteers will be responsible for taking the food waste from the cafeteria to composting stations outside, and monitoring the compost bins.

David Burton, principal at Long Reach, applauded Malik for her work, especially her involvement of other students so the work continues after she graduates this year.

"I'm in total support of what she's trying to do, because we need to be cognizant of (our environmental impact)," Burton said. "She's an amazing young lady, and really passionate about this. She's decided this is something she wants to leave as a legacy."

Diane McCallister, Long Reach's Gifted and Talented resource teacher, nominated Malik for the county's G/T Varsity Scholar Award. Out of the thousands of students McCallister has had in her 38 years as a teacher, Malik is "one of the top five, ever," she said.

"She has such persistence," McCallister said. "The way she presents herself in a room full of adults is exemplary. She's poised, on-point, and she's done her research."

Malik plans on going to Harvard University, possibly to study molecular biology. She said her interest in science began in her mother's doctor office, where she saw patients coming and going, always feeling better after being treated.

"To me, every piece of science is like a puzzle," she said. "You had these patients coming in and saying, 'Thanks, doctor, I feel so much better.' It's like seeing magic, but it's really just using logic and taking action."