More universities are saying no to the tray, leading to better food conservation and less wasted resources.
You’d think that I was a regular cast member of the Broadway version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist based on how many times I sang the chorus of “Food, Glorious Food” (in my mind, of course) while surveying the latest dining hall edibles offered by my university. It was an exciting time of unabashed gluttony punctuated by bouts of incredulous overeating and eyes that were far too often bigger than my stomach. There is no denying the “freshman 15” claim — the first time a teenager is away from home and in the midst of such a bountiful array of food selections, it is physically impossible to resist the allure of all that edible goodness. Mealtime becomes an exercise in insanity as you continually try to challenge yourself to eat more! More!! MORE!!! before finally making the transformation into human squirrel entirely complete. Up until quite recently, colleges typically made trays available to their eager diners, but contending with the extensive food waste became an escalating fiscal and ecological concern. It’s estimated that students end up wasting roughly 5 ounces of food at each meal, which may not seem like much, but that ends up being the equivalent of $250,000 of food annually. This chronic issue prompted universities to devise an incredibly simple yet brilliant solution: Make it somewhat inconvenient for students to pig out. Apparently, those who are forced to take only what they can fit on their plate are less likely to nibble and chuck. By ditching handy plastic trays altogether and offering standard plates instead, universities across the country have been able to conserve a significant amount of water while also reducing their overall volume of food waste, some by as much as 50%. Educational establishments that are currently tray-free and choosing to compost leftover food scraps include the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Maine’s College of the Atlantic, Georgia Tech, North Park University and many, many others. In fact, it’s predicted that the majority of the learning institutes across the country will follow suit within the next several years because, “You can’t be economically sustainable unless you’re environmentally sustainable.” Purdue University is taking it one step further by converting its dining court’s leftover grease into biodiesel and also creating electricity for its local wastewater plant using the methane generated from food scraps (currently estimated to be 20 tons per month). Even Lewiston, ME’s Bates College recycles its kitchen grease into biodiesel and diverts 82% of its food waste to a local pig farmer. If you wonder whether students are in favor of the tray-free approach in their dining halls, the main supplier of university cafeteria food, Aramark, claims that 79% of 92,000 students surveyed support the planet-friendly move. Without the old familiar plastic standby, university officials are finding that the waste generated per meal per student is now hovering between the 2- to 3-ounce range, which is certainly an improvement. To eat or not to eat… that is the question for countless university students. For America’s higher learning facilities, the answer is that they’d rather not take any chances. For a greener bottom line (and conveniently, a greener planet), tray-free dining is the way to go for a drastic reduction in waste.