Eating Off the Table

In hope of reducing waste, some college dining halls experiment by eliminating trays.
January 30, 2008

Think back to your undergraduate days eating in the dorm dining hall. When you moved through the buffet line, did you ever get a little too ambitious with portions just because you had extra room on that plastic tray?

That's why, in an effort to cut down on waste in the form of uneaten food, several dining halls have experimented with trayless policies. The thinking: Diners will think twice about loading up on food they don't plan to eat if they can't carry it all easily.

Reducing the amount of unnecessary waste not only is an environmentally-friendly policy, college officials say, but it helps an institution's bottom line.

"More and more campuses are looking at this from both an environmental perspective and an economic one," said Varun Avasthi, director of dining services at Colby College, which experiments with trayless policies. "If you're not wasting as much food you're not buying as much food."

Starting this semester, Alfred University, in New York, has gone to trayless in dining halls across campus, with the exception being for students with disabilities or those who need extra assistance. Green Alfred, a student group that promotes sustainable practices, along with others lobbied for the change.

Students ran a test last semester showing that on two days when trays weren't offered, food and beverage waste dropped between 30 and 50 percent, according to Kathy Woughter, vice president for student affairs at Alfred. That amounts to about 1,000 pounds of solid waste and 112 gallons of liquid waste saved on a weekly basis, according to the college.

Alfred University students dining without trays.


Without trays to wash, water consumption also decreased. Woughter said students might also find themselves a little lighter in the waist as a result of the policy. But she said those are more "peripheral concerns." Reducing waste is the primary reason for the initiative.

The same is true at the University of Connecticut, which next month is running a three-week test to see whether trayless cafeterias could become the norm. During the first week, students will have trays as normal. The second week will be a mix of trays and no trays, with flyers about waste savings posted in the dining hall participating in the test. For the third week, those posters will stay but the trays will go.

The university will tally the number of dishwasher cycles run and amount of waste generated, said Dan Britton, sustainability coordinator in UConn's Office of Environmental Policy. Dining services will ultimately make the decision about tray policies.

"My suspicion is there will be a significant reduction in food waste, but in terms of convenience for students we'll need to do some rearranging. There will be kinks to work out, but we're hoping to start trying it in other places."

Britton and others acknowledge that the trayless policies aren't always a home run with students, some of whom argue that colleges shouldn't be in the business of making such choices for them.

In this case, though, Avasthi disagrees.

"Unfortunately, there are some habits that need to be broken," said Avasthi, who is also Maine's district manager for food service provider Sodexho. "There are logistical issues, sure. Students don't want to go back up and get another glass. That's where the pushback typically occurs. It's a convenience factor. We're so used to having everything all the time whenever we want it."

Colby has tried "Trayless Thursdays" for the past several years. The college would implement the policy, receive student complaints, shelve the program for awhile and then try it again the next semester, Avasthi said.

The college knows that on a given Thursday without trays, roughly one-third less waste is generated across campus. Dining officials also know to purchase slightly less food on those days. Avasthi said the next step is determining exactly how much the college would save on purchasing costs by instituting the policy for, say, an entire week.

Whatever Colby does, Avasthi said students will still find alternatives. He's seen the college's woodsmen team eat off wooden trays they've hand crafted, and even heard of some students balancing their food and drinks on dining hall chairs.


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