More college cafeterias dump food trays

Something familiar will be missing when students buy meals at many college dining halls this fall: trays.

In a bid to discourage food waste and decrease energy use at all-you-can-eat campus cafeterias, dozens of college dining services — from New York University to University of Minnesota — are giving trays the heave.

With food costs rising and college students increasingly concerned about the imprint their schools leave on the environment, catering giants Aramark and Sodexo have turned going trayless into campus chic. No trays means no place to pile dishes of stuff many students only sample then toss.

Some campuses that already have tested the concept report food waste declines of up to 50%. Then, there's the thousands of dollars in energy savings when trays don't need washing. An astonishing 79% of the 92,000 students surveyed this spring by Aramark said they support trayless dining to reduce campus waste.

"It's a simple idea with profound consequences," says Theo Kalikow, president at the University of Maine-Farmington, which dropped trays last year. "There's less food waste, less energy consumed and less water used." Other trayless schools:

•New York University. In fall, one dining hall that serves 1,000 meals a day will be trayless. By the end of the first semester, 50% of the campus will be trayless, says Owen Moore, director of dining. Food waste has been cut from 4.03 ounces per tray to less than 2.37 ounces.

•University of North Carolina. The Chapel Hill campus nixed trays in two dining halls in October. It's saving thousands of gallons of water monthly by not washing trays, says Scott Myers, dining director.

•University of Florida. To show students why it was dropping trays last year, stacks of trays were tied up with rope, and signs detailed how much energy and water was being saved.

Most of the nation's 4,000 colleges and universities will cut trays from their dining services within the next five years, projects Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

"You can't be economically sustainable unless you're environmentally sustainable," says Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature, a non-profit sustainability group.

For the food-service giants, it's about containing food costs, which have risen 8.2% this year for Aramark. While trayless dining has mostly been a hit with students, faculty and staff at some schools have a harder time, says Chris Stemen, senior director of sustainability at Aramark.

Arlin Wasserman, vice president of corporate citizenship at Sodexo, concedes one blip. While demonstrating at Georgia Tech how to carry an entree, salad and coffee up steps — without a tray — he slipped.

As a result, he chuckles, his khaki pants are no longer khaki.

TELL US: Without trays, certain students will no longer be able to sneak them out of dining halls and use them as makeshift toboggans. What is the craziest thing you ever did with a dinner tray?