May 14, 2012

Sinking the tray

Students should advance the cause of trayless dining to reduce excessive food waste.

Once-bitten apples, pizza crust, some unappetizing greens—these are things all students have tossed aside on the way out of campus dining halls. It’s a thoughtless exercise, but it’s worth stopping to consider that these dining halls produce some 2,000 gallons of waste per week. Admittedly, it is positive that the University and Aramark have taken steps to ensure that composting and other rather extensive sustainability efforts currently prevail in our dining halls, but the sheer amount of waste is the root of all problems and must be reduced. Aside from taking only what they will eat, students can take a more decisive step to avoid food waste by supporting trayless dining.

At present, Aramark has in place in all three dining halls an elaborate, EPA-compliant food waste protocol. As of last fall, all dining halls donate leftover food to a local rescue mission, and the Resource Center collects all food waste (over half of which is produced by Pierce) for composting. These steps have all been taken recently and should be lauded. Yet, according to the Dining website, about 8,000 pounds of food waste is composted each week on average. Plainly, the University is doing much systematically to mitigate the harm of the immense wastage that occurs, so it alone should not be held accountable for the scale of this problem.

Rather, students should seek to correct their own bad habits. One such habit is the use of trays, items which contribute both to heavy water use due to washing and to food waste, as diners tend to pile them too highly with food. All dining halls have implemented a policy of “Tray Inconvenience,” which entails that they make trays somewhat difficult to access, thereby stemming their use. However, students can take the initiative to make trayless dining an official policy. As of this spring, 300 Aramark-affiliated colleges and universities in North America have, to varying extents, removed trays from their dining halls, resulting in the diversion of 15 million pounds of food from landfills this year. As long as trays are made available for those who need them due to physical or medical challenges, the U of C has little reason not to be among these schools.

Students should view trayless dining—a system in place at Princeton and the University of Michigan, and which has saved Grand Valley State University 31,000 gallons of water per year since 2007—as an opportunity to prove that they are responsible consumers by advocating and taking responsibility for reducing their food waste. Groups like SAGE and the Sustainability Council should be at the forefront of any efforts, communicating to students the importance of their decision to not use trays and advancing the cause within the proper administrative channels. Individual students, too, can easily contribute to waste reduction, merely by taking only what they know they’ll eat and avoiding trays. After all, the journey from your table to the food lines is hardly arduous.

Some may wryly point to the quality of food in our dining halls as a reason why so much of it goes to waste on our campus. However, that alone is a shameful reason for students to forget the importance of their collective stewardship of the community and environment. If U of C students are rightly serious about this responsibility, they should know that the ball is in their court—or, perhaps, on their tray.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.