Students Have Their Hands Full Saving Food, Energy and Water

NWF   |   October 14, 2008

University and college dining halls across the country are beginning to sound a little different these days, as if there are a few less “clanks” and “clatters” mingled with mealtime conversations. This new silence can be attributed to the trend in campus dining halls going “trayless,” which means students forgo using plastic food trays and carry their plates, bowls, utensils and drinks to their seats using their own hands.

The hope is that this movement will prevent students from being able to fill their trays with food that would end up uneaten and thrown in the garbage. Ideally, not only will trayless dining reduce wasted food, but energy and water will be saved by not having to wash trays.

According to Jonathan Bloom, journalist and creator of Wasted Food, there are over 30 colleges and universities that offered trayless dining halls, or have at least tried it, in the last year. Bloom’s list includes schools ranging from Luther College in Iowa (2,500 students) to the University of Florida (51,000 students and the second-largest university in the country).

“I think traylessness is a real no-brainer,” says Bloom. “It requires little to no extra money and not much of a change in the student’s lifestyle. All it asks is that students make two trips to get food instead of one.”

In the United States, more than 25% of food produced for consumption goes to waste, and food leftovers are the largest component, by weight, of the waste stream in the United States. As food decomposes in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the United States and responsible for 34% of methane emissions overall.

Although trayless dining is a relatively new concept, one landmark study on the effort, produced by ARAMARK Higher Education, was released in July 2008. The study examined 186,000 meals at 25 colleges and universities and found that on trayless dining days, food waste was reduced by 25% to 30% per person, or about one-quarter to one-half pound of food per person per day.

The study also sought to identify the water and energy savings resulting from removing trays from dining halls, although found it difficult to generalize the water consumption savings due to the high number of variables, such as dishwashing systems and water-flow rates. ARAMARK did determine, however, that washing one tray requires at least one-third to one-half gallon of water. In a recent Boston Globe article, the University of Florida estimates that it will save 470,000 gallons of water annually through trayless dining.

The ARAMARK study could not confidently determine energy consumption and cost savings due to an even greater number of variables, such as regional and local utility rates, institutional fuel mix and operating practices. However, the study did highlight case studies for two specific universities, the University of Maine at Farmington and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. The University of Maine estimated saving $57,000 a year with trayless dining, while Grand Valley State University estimated an economic savings of $79,000 and a 540-pound reduction in dish detergent and sanitizer waste.

It may appear that trayless dining is a “golden egg” in food, energy and water reduction, but it has been met with some student resistance. “There are a couple of arguments I’ve heard against trayless dining,” says Bloom. “It’s the ‘I paid for this so I should be able to take as much as I want’ argument and ‘If the university is going to save a bunch of money on this program, why won’t I see any of it?'” In response to the first argument, Bloom chuckles because “students can still take as much food as they want. They just have to do it in a couple trips.”

The argument for what to do with the perceived saved money is trickier to solve. “I don’t think universities will lower their food prices for students,” says Bloom, “but they might invest the money into buying more locally-produced foods.” As the cost of dining out is 4% higher than one year ago, finding ways for universities to save money on food may just mean slowing the rise in costs passed down to students.

Still, students have found ways to show their disgust and frustration with trayless dining. A Wall Street Journal report  found that students at Colby College in Maine resorted to using their chairs as improvised trays on trayless dining days, and the school’s “woodsmen team” made the effort to craft their own wooden trays to use.

At Luther College in Iowa, food waste was reduced by 8.4% during a week-long trial of trayless dining. However, many students voiced their concerns over the credibility, mission and practice of the program. Luther College Dining Services provided comment cards to the students during the trial to gauge their receptivity. Some of the negative comments read, “This is freaking stupid,” and “I will burn a tire for every day I didn’t have a tray.” Some students purposely dumped food on the floors for the kitchen staff to clean up. About a week after the trial period ended, the college hosted an open forum to discuss trayless dining and its future on campus, but only about 25 students were present and most already favored removing trays. College officials thought the low forum attendance reflected that students had already begun to accept the idea of trayless dining.

Some students find it legitimately difficult to balance their meals, especially bowls of soup, in their arms. And some concerns have been raised over food safety when students have to leave their food unattended on the table to go back for a drink.

Even with the occasional instances of deliberate waste, dirty tables and disgruntled diners, the ARAMARK study found that a large majority of students across the United States favor trayless dining. In the study, ARAMARK surveyed more than 92,000 students, faculty and staff at 300 institutions in the United States (most of which have never even tried trayless dining), and they found that 79% of respondents indicate “Yes” when asked if “they would accept the removal of trays in an effort to reduce waste on campus.” ARAMARK also estimates that 50 to 60% of its 500 campus partners are expected to try the trayless dining program in the 2008-2009 academic year.

At Virginia Tech, the trayless program eventually created a full-time job for one student. In 2007, Andy Sarjahani was a student at Virginia Tech working on his dietetic internship. For his final project before graduation, he designed a study that looked at food waste in one of the campus dining halls. “There are 11 dining halls on campus,” says Sarjahani, “and two of them are ‘all you can eat.’ I chose to study one of them, D2, since it was the largest, serving over 2,500 students a day.” For a week, Sarjahani and other volunteers measured food waste when students used trays. “We found an average of 1,200 pounds of food being wasted a day at D2, 41% from ‘over-production’ and 59% from student waste.”

When Sarjahani conducted another food audit several weeks later, this time during a trayless dining week, he found that food waste was reduced by 29.6%, even though the average number of students being served went up to 2,800 a day.

After Sarjahani graduated, Virginia Tech hired him as the campus Sustainability Coordinator. Today, both of the university’s “all you can eat” dining halls are trayless all year, but interestingly, that doesn’t fully satisfy Sarjahani.

“It’s borderline greenwashing,” says Sarjahani. “Traylessness is a step in the right direction, but trays aren’t the problem. The problem is ‘all you can eat.'” Sarjahani looks at the 41% of food waste from over-production (down to 38% during the test trayless week) as the real culprit. “Why are they producing so much food?” he asks. “It’s because of a flawed rating system.”

Sarjahani is referencing Virginia Tech’s high rating in “Best Campus Food” by the Princeton Review (#3 in 2009). “The rating is based on quality, quantity and service,” Sarjahani explains, “but they don’t look at waste. The dining hall will make a new large pepperoni pizza 10 minutes before lunch ends, even if there’s three pieces left of another, just in case one student walks in looking for hot pepperoni pizza. The idea is that the last person in line should have the same food options as the first person in line.”

With so many universities and colleges expected to implement trayless dining options, questions like the one Sarjahani raises may work their way to the forefront, but the evidence is already showing that trayless dining halls are reducing waste and saving money, energy and water. ARAMARK suggests that universities interested in testing a trayless dining program launch a trial day or week during periods of heightened environmental awareness, such as Earth Week in April or Campus Sustainability Day in October. If a university wants to implement a full-time trayless dining hall, ARAMARK suggests starting it at the beginning of fall semester, when first-year students and transfers are most likely to immediately accept the idea since they have no previous experience with trays on campus.


See More:

US Wastes Half Its Food: Food Navigator

Students Take a Crash Course in Trayless Dining 101: Minneapolis Star Tribune

More College Cafeterias Dump Food Trays: USA Today

Dining Halls Go Trayless: Collegiate Times