Trees are Green; Trays Not So Much

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Students standing in line for dinner in the East Quad Dining Hall on a recent Sunday evening went to reach for a tray to hold their Cajun tofu pasta, veggie baked beans, scalloped potatoes and ice cream sundaes -- only to find them conspicuously absent. As they meandered into the serving area, they noticed a sign saying, "Try Trayless Today!"

         The trayless dining experience was spearheaded by students enrolled in a University of Michigan class, Sustainability and the Campus, that requires students to participate in projects to make the University of Michigan a more environmentally sustainable place. That goal is in line with President Mary Sue Coleman's recently announced sustainability initiative to reduce the university's carbon footprint. In the class, taught by Mike Shriberg, a total of 42 students are working on eight different projects.

         The concept behind trayless dining is that not having to wash trays reduces waste substantially. Trayless eating cuts back on water and detergent and reduces the energy used to run dishwashers and heat the water. Other colleges that have implemented the program have seen a substantial decrease in water and detergent use, decreased food waste, and significant cost savings. 

 Will Moyer, a 20-year-old student participating in the project, was attracted to this initiative because he says it provides a relatively easy means for reducing waste. "I thought this was a quick way to make a big difference," he said. In addition to the energy savings, he says that trayless dining makes it tougher for students to balance several dishes at a time. So they don't take more than they want, or will consume, and that reduces the food waste problem.

         East Quad's lead chef, Buzz Cummings, says he often sees sandwiches heading to the trash that didn't have a bite taken out of them, along with entirely uneaten apples and bananas. Once food is taken and discarded, "there's not much we can do with it. This may help with that," he says.

         A pilot project conducted at Markley dining hall reduced food waste 50 pounds, pointing to a possible reduction of 50 pounds of food waste per person over the course of a full year. But the trial concluded just as the dining hall was closing for the academic year. Students hope this year’s project will lead to more permanent results, and felt aiming it at East Quad, which has an eco-friendly reputation, was more appropriate. Laura Johnson, age 24, and an East Quad hall director, says, "The residents are very environmentally conscious and have a sense of what it means to change their behavior in order to bring about greater good."

Many students trying trayless, including Kevin Farshchi, an 18-year-old freshman, were supportive. "I think it's necessary and good for the environment," he said. But Rachel England, a 19-year-old sophomore, said it's difficult to fit all her food on one plate, so she opted to use a tray to avoid having to frequently return to the line, something she saw as a big inconvenience.

          According to East Quad dining manager Sue Davis-Hyellsted, during the project almost 100% of students went trayless at breakfast, 85% at lunch and 60% to 70% at dinner. Davis-Hyellsted said the system isn't perfect. For example, the tables were messier, since trays tend to catch spills. As a result staff had to spend more time wiping them down -- a challenge during busy meal times. Also, East Quad carts are best equipped for stacking trays, and dishes would topple when the cart was moved. She said these issues aren’t insurmountable, and a system that better handles dishes would improve the situation.

           A post-survey of 100 students found that 81% of residents decreased their use of trays, while 40% of that 81% have stopped using trays altogether. "Every tray counts, and if 81% of people have been using fewer trays since our pilot, then I think it has been a success," said Stephanie Wither, a 20-year-old junior who said this project was an invaluable part of her University of Michigan experience. The students are preparing a report for University Housing recommending that East Quad become trayless, ideally by this summer, and offering suggestions for an easier transition to trayless dining.

         The biggest obstacle will be changing student behavior, since grabbing a tray is second nature, says Angela Bozell, a 20-year-old junior in the group. But as new students arrive and never see trays, "they'll be less likely to want one," she says. If trayless dining is implemented, "I would feel very satisfied that our hard work paid off," she says.