Sustainable Blog

Doing Away With the Tray

Trayless cafeterias decrease food waste and save money

Photo Credit: Duke Yearlook via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Duke Yearlook via Compfight cc

The trend of trayless dining took root several years ago based on the belief that the absence of trays leads diners to make more careful choices and waste less food. Now there is solid data to prove that trayless dining not only reduces food waste, but also saves money and conserves water and energy.

Trayless dining received national attention in 2009 when the New York Times covered the trend. At the time, 42% of colleges and universities tracked by the Sustainable Endowments Institute had begun curbing the use of trays in their dining halls as part of broader sustainability programs. Today, 75% of the tracked schools have eliminated trays in some or all of their dining facilities, and more are bound to follow in light of a new study conducted by researchers at American University.

The study, released by the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition documented a 32% reduction in food waste and a 27% reduction in dish use when trays were made unavailable at a university dining facility. These findings suggest that trayless cafeterias are a simple solution for universities and other dining facilities looking to reduce waste and save money.

Inspired by reports from the food management industry that suggested going trayless reduced food waste, Kiho Kim and Stevia Morawski of American University’s environmental studies department decided to design a formal experiment testing the benefits of the practice, according to an article in Pacific Standard.

The experiment occurred over the course of one week, during which trays were randomly removed from use in American’s all-you-can-eat cafeteria. The researchers tallied the dirty dishes and weighed the food waste of the first 30 diners who finished their meals. With trays, the average student wasted 111 grams of scraps and leftovers; without trays, they wasted just 76 grams – a 32% drop.

The Pacific Standard article states that, “Kim and Morawski note that American’s dining hall serves 3,200 meals every day, so going trayless would save 13 tons of food every semester—enough to feed a crowd of 5,000—and produce 200,000 fewer dirty dishes for the staff to wash. And indeed, when they showed their data to the university’s administration, the trays disappeared for good.”

Every cafeteria is slightly different, but in general when a cafeteria goes trayless (or eliminates trays for certain meals) the patrons of the cafeteria just grab one or two plates, fill them to their liking, and carry them to their table to eat. At the end of the meal those dishes are deposited into a bus bin or something similar. Many cafeterias allow students to go back for seconds if they want more food than they can fit on their plate. The authors of another similar study at Indiana University add a note from the cafeteria employees’ perspective, “According to employees, two issues that might need attention when putting a trayless system in place are increased breakage of dishware and increased need to wipe down tables. Otherwise, employee response to the switch was positive.”

You can find lists of some of the universities that have gone trayless here and here.

At Sustainable America, we love simple solutions like this. Trayless cafeterias cost little to implement, save money (in energy, tray replacement and employee wages) and reduce both energy use and food waste. At a time when we waste 40% of our food, actions like this will go far to decrease food waste at institutions that feed large numbers of people every day.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.