Autumn 2009: Sustainable Efforts

Student walking through cafeteria with a plate in her hands

Balancing Act: Carrying plates of food instead of trays reduces waste.

Kay Hinton

Waste Not, Want Not

Trayless dining and composting save resources

By David Payne

Starting this fall, There’s been a menu change at Lil’s Dining Hall at Oxford College. The trayless pilot program, introduced at Oxford in January, required diners to carry their individual plates of food rather than pile them on a tray. Through the spring semester, there was a 14,587-pound reduction in food waste compared to one year earlier. The program was so successful it became permanent at Oxford and may spread to other dining facilities on campus.

The national trayless trend is prevalent at schools with active sustainability and waste-reduction programs. These schools have seen decreases in water consumption, since trays no longer need to be washed, and reductions in food waste averaged 25 to 30 percent.  

“The amount of food we consume, and especially the amount we waste, are significant variables in our environmental impact,” says Oxford Dean Stephen Bowen. “As the son of parents who grew up during the Great Depression, I was taught to be thoughtful about how much food I took and if I took it, it was my responsibility not to waste it. It’s amazing to see what the absence of a tray can do to improve food use efficiency.”

The Oxford pilot project decreased overall food consumption, which resulted in savings of about $800 per month for overall food purchases at Oxford’s dining facility. Savings from the program are being reinvested at Oxford into menu options that feature more locally grown fruits and vegetables. The University’s overall sustainability goal is to purchase 75 percent local or sustainably grown food by 2015.

Patty Erbach, senior director of Emory Dining, says the trayless program is one of several such awareness programs on campus. Starting last summer at the Dobbs University Center and Wesley Woods, cooking waste was collected and hauled to Georgia’s first state-permitted composting facility. In the first seven weeks at the DUC, 1.5 tons of food waste was composted. Such programs support Emory’s goal of diverting 65 percent of its waste from landfills by 2015.

Also starting this fall, diners at the DUC are being asked to scrape excess food from their plates into bins, where food waste is collected and later composted. “It’s a powerful, visual way to reinforce the concept of taking only what you can eat,” Erbach says.