Eliminating College Dining Hall Trays Cuts Water, Food Waste

As Columbia University sophomore Sanaz Fazeli slowly walked to a table at John Jay Dining Hall, carefully balancing a precarious arrangement of plates, utensils and cups with both arms, she announced: "I could really use a tray right now."

This balancing act in college cafeterias is becoming a daily routine for thousands of students across the country as more and more schools make the decision to go "trayless," eliminating a dining hall staple to reduce food waste and water use.

Reducing Waste

Aramark and Sodexo, the nation's two largest university cafeteria suppliers, have taken steps to reduce waste and are suggesting to all the universities they serve that cafeteria trays be eliminated. Studies conducted by both companies show that eliminating trays reduces the amount of food wasted per meal and also dramatically conserves water needed to wash the trays.

Food waste is of particular interest to university administrators because the cost has skyrocketed in recent years. The idea of going without trays as a way to reduce food waste is that students who carry trays while they browse the food selection in the cafeteria are likely to pile copious amounts onto their trays, not really thinking about what they will actually eat. Without trays, students have to select more carefully, given the comparatively small size of a regular plate, and thus are more likely to eat all the food that they have selected.

Saving Water

Sodexo company officials, who estimate that removing trays saves about 200 gallons of water a day for every 1,000 meals served, expect that approximately 230 of its 600 university partners will eliminate trays.

In a study at the University of Maine at Farmington, Aramark found that trayless dining reduced food waste by 25 to 30 percent. Additionally, 288,288 gallons of water were conserved and an estimated $57,000 worth of resources (normally allocated to "energy, water, cleaning agents and waste removal") was saved.

That study, along with research at another 24 colleges, led Aramark to encourage trayless dining at all of the college campuses that it works with -- and it expects that 50 to 60 percent of its 500 campuses will make the change.

One such school, Lake Forest College in Illinois, made the change at the beginning of this academic year and hasn't looked back since.

Trays = More Food Waste

"People, when they have trays tend to take more than they actually will eat," said Robin Bertucci, office manager for Lake Forest Dining Services.

Lake Forest piloted the trayless program during Earth Week last spring. When students were receptive to the idea, administrators at Lake Forest decided to make it a permanent fixture.

"This was a food cost issue as well as an environmental issue," said Bertucci.

On the environmental level, Aramark reported in August, "Trayless dining reduces our client's environmental footprint. It reduces waste, conserves natural resources (namely energy and water) and reduced the amount of detergents, rinse, and drying agents into the water table."

Possible Financial Gains

In addition to the financial benefits achieved by universities and suppliers, Margot Carroll, interim associate vice president of the University of Delaware's administrative services, said that students will also reap benefits from this change.

Carroll said that with the money saved from the trayless dining program, which was begun this semester, administrators hope to provide students with more "dining offerings," such as special meals or celebrations. Carroll also suggested the possibility that the saved money might be used to lower the price of meals for students, though this prospect is difficult to assess this early.

No matter how much is saved, Carroll insisted: "The ultimate winners will be the students." She said that Delaware's decision to go trayless was encouraged by Aramark, whose relationship with UD Carroll called "a real partnership" in which they both help each other reach their environmental and economic goals.

Similar to the dining improvements that Carroll expected, students at San Diego State University are already reaping the benefits.

Adding Organics

SDSU Dining, which supplies its own food independently, implemented the trayless system in the fall of 2007. Using the money saved (estimated at 23 cents per meal in raw food costs) from the reduction of food and water waste, SDSU could significantly upgrade the menu and ambience in the dining hall. Fish is served three times a week, along with a new organic salad bar, and the atmosphere in the cafeteria was also improved. Additionally, students at SDSU have learned to carefully consider the food that they eat.

"Students become more educated," said Paul Melchior, director of dining services at SDSU, "in learning that all-you-can-eat dining is more about quality than quantity."

Melchior added that, unlike other universities that operate with the assistance of food suppliers such as Aramark and Sodexo, SDSU's dining program is completely not-for-profit and so any money that is saved is channeled right back into the dining program in the form of cafeteria upgrades.

Trayless Dining Favored by Students

At the College of William and Mary, an overwhelmingly positive student response to the prospect of trayless dining made it an easy decision for administrators. In a poll, 75 percent of William & Mary students said they favored trayless dining to help the environment.

Suzanne Suerattan, a W&M spokeswoman, said in an e-mail, "We know that not everyone is in favor of trayless dining, and it's fair to say we are still testing this switch and continue to offer trays in other dining halls and study the results. But so far, the benefits of trayless dining -- as well as the enthusiasm on campus for generating less waste -- are hard to ignore."

Indeed, Isabelle Cohen, a sophomore at W&M, said, "I think it's a fantastic small way to save energy that doesn't inconvenience people much. That said, students need to remember that is a very small thing and it doesn't mean that they're all doing their part."

However, some students are less enthusiastic.

"I am a huge advocate of trays," said Katherine Lynch, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, where trays were eliminated from dining halls this semester, "because it means I can get a meal a drink, and a dessert at the same time."

Many colleges have made the trayless move part of a larger effort to make their campuses more environmentally-friendly.

Going Carbon-Neutral

"We went trayless as a way of helping the college become carbon neutral," said Matthew Biette, director of dining services at Middlebury College in Vermont where trays were eliminated in August 2007. "Middlebury College has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2016, and most of the low-hanging fruit has been identified. We felt by eliminating tray use we would be able to make an impact ... and a pleasant byproduct was the reduction in food waste and therefore food cost."

While some students may bemoan the inconvenience of carrying multiple plates and cups to and from their dining hall tables, most students see this inconvenience is a small price to pay for the potential environmental benefits. But the validity of the claim of environmental benefits is essential to students willing to deal with the new inconvenience.

"If we are actually reducing a significant amount of waste by getting rid of trays, then the inconvenience is worth it," said Fazeli. "But if it's being done for the school's profit, it's ridiculous."