Debby Lee Cohen, Who Helped Prune Plastic From Schools, Dies at 64

As an artist who liked to play with scale, Debby Lee Cohen created monumental pieces, like the giant puppets she designed for Manhattan’s annual Village Halloween Parade, as well as miniatures, like the tiny forest she once made for a work by the interdisciplinary artist and compose Meredith Monk, with whom she often collaborated.

A decade and a half ago, she became a plastic activist when she learned the scale of waste in New York City’s public schools.

Her daughter Anna, then in second grade at a school in the East Village, had announced that she was boycotting lunch after seeing an exhibition on climate change at the Museum of Natural History that included a diorama of polar bears atop a mountain of what she recognized as her school’s lunch trays. It was then that Ms. Cohen learned that school lunches were served on foam trays — and that the city’s more than 1,800 public schools were using and throwing out at least 800,000 of them daily.

Ms. Cohen, an artist, animator, performer, puppeteer and environmental activist whose campaign to eliminate foam trays from New York City’s public schools paved the way for similar bans in the city and state — and who taught students how to advocate for themselves at school and at City Hall — died on April 7 at her home in Manhattan. She was 64.

The cause was colon cancer, said her sister, Ellie Cohen.

In 2009, after her daughter’s school lunch boycott — which she solved in the short term by making her daughter’s lunches herself — Ms. Cohen looked for organizations that were dealing with the tray issue. There were none. But she found like-minded parents who were also working to reduce the staggering amount of plastic waste in their children’s schools, and they banded together to push for citywide action.

Their efforts led the city’s Department of Education to agree in 2010 to try out Trayless Tuesdays, a foam-free initiative that cut down the number of trays used in public schools by 20 percent, or 850,000 trays, a week. They then worked with Stephen O’Brien, an administrator in the department’s office of food and nutrition services, to find a compostable alternative.

Ms. Cohen’s students in her 3-D class at the Parsons School of Design created a prototype with input from public school students — many of whom were adamant that the foam-free trays should still have compartments so that different foods wouldn’t run into each other, that enduring childhood horror.

“Debby Lee was a great listener and a great storyteller,” Mr. O’Brien said, “and she was very, very good at understanding the need for incremental change when you want to make big lasting change.”

By 2015, working with the Urban School Food Alliance, which collaborated with five school districts across the country to buy compostable trays at a scale that made them more affordable, Ms. Cohen and the organization she founded, Cafeteria Culture, were successful in their fight to ban foam trays from the city’s school system. They then set to work on pruning other plastic items that make up a typical school lunch, like cutlery, single-use condiment packets, plastic wrappers and chip bags.

In 2018, fifth graders at P.S. 15 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn took the first step. Ms. Cohen and her colleagues, along with the school staff, developed a program that turned the students into citizen scientists. They studied the amount of waste they generated, learned about the harmful effects of plastics on the environment, and petitioned their principal for permission to try a plastic-free lunch day.

The students then took on City Hall, testifying before city officials about their experience and asking for plastic-free lunches in all public schools.

Ms. Cohen and the filmmaker Atsuko Quirk, Cafeteria Culture’s executive director, made a documentary in 2019 about the fifth graders’ odyssey. The film, “Microplastic Madness,” is an “Inconvenient Truth” for its times. It concludes, joyously, with the students rallying at City Hall and Ms. Cohen’s giant puppets — made from foam trays plucked from the garbage — gamboling on the steps outside.

Two weeks after the rally, the New York City Council passed a ban on single-use foam containers, and the law took effect the next year. A state ban was adopted in 2020.

Since 2022, 750 of New York City’s elementary schools have participated in a monthly plastic-free lunch day. Twice a year, in November and April, schools across the country join in.

“Debby Lee was a visionary who knew how to get things done,” said Judith Enck, a former official for the Environmental Protection Agency and the founder of the nonprofit organization Beyond Plastics, who collaborated with Ms. Cohen and Cafeteria Culture. “When I get a little blue thinking we’re not making enough progress on plastic pollution, I just watch the trailer for ‘Microplastic Madness.’ There are many little Debby Lee Cohens out there now who will do this work once they graduate.”

Eric Goldstein, the New York City environmental director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email: “Debby saw the power that students could have in influencing elected officials as a way of bringing about environmental progress. She brought school kids into City Council hearings. She set up meetings for them with City Hall officials. She was minting lifelong advocates who felt they had the power to influence public policy.”

Deborah Lee Cohen was born on Aug. 23, 1959, in Baltimore, the youngest of four children of Helen (Schlossberg) Cohen and Gil Cohen, a paper and chemical salesman. She studied biology at Goucher College before transferring to the Maryland Institute College of Art, graduating in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She moved to New York City the next year.

Ms. Cohen designed sets, puppets and costumes for a number of directors and choreographers, most notably Meredith Monk. “Debby Lee could create worlds out of very simple things,” Ms. Monk said by phone. “We were alike in our preference to work in a very tactile way that was also rigorous and sophisticated.”

When Ms. Monk staged her cosmic epic “Atlas” at the Houston Grand Opera in 1991, Ms. Cohen created several props for the set — a horse, an airplane, an ocean liner and a jeep — that evoked travel as a metaphor for a spiritual quest.

“She was also one of the great diplomatic geniuses of our time,” Ms. Monk added. “Debby Lee was radiant and buoyant, and yet she had a quiet strength.”

For nearly a decade, Ms. Cohen designed the giant puppets that are the centerpiece of the Village Halloween Parade. She worked with the artists Mia Kanazawa and Mark Kindschi and a cadre of volunteers at Rokeby, the eccentric 600-acre estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y., that has been home to the parade’s preparations since 1980. It was Ms. Cohen who introduced environmental themes into the spectacle, as an expression of both activism and pragmatism: The parade needed sponsors.

In 1989, the theme was the rainforest. Ben & Jerry’s signed on and used the parade to introduce a new ice cream flavor, Rainforest Crunch. Ms. Cohen designed puppets of rainforest animals in danger of extinction — the woolly spider monkey, the matamata turtle and the toco toucan — but rendered them as skeletons, save for one vibrant element, like the toucan’s brilliant orange bill or the monkey’s curling tail.

In addition to her sister, Ms. Cohen is survived by her husband, John Molloy, a gallerist; their daughters, Anna and Maria Molloy; a stepdaughter, Leah Molloy; two grandchildren; and her brothers, Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen and Jeff Cohen.

In 2018, Gale Brewer, who was then the Manhattan borough president, declared Dec. 12 of that year “Debby Lee Cohen Day” in recognition of Ms. Cohen’s anti-plastic activism in the school system. Before her death, Ms. Cohen had been lobbying for the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act, which would reduce single-use plastics like chip bags and bread wrappers. It was passed by the State Senate last week, but has not yet been voted on in the Assembly.

Ms. Cohen was buried on April 10 at a natural burial ground in Rhinebeck. She was wrapped in an antique French cotton sheet that had belonged to Ms. Kanazawa, her puppet colleague, and laid on a wooden board from the Big Reuse center in Brooklyn, which resells donated items that would otherwise end up in landfills.

She was adamant that her funeral be zero-waste — and package-free.

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