It’s a scene familiar to anyone who eats on campus. Tray after tray clatters down the conveyor belt, each piled high with uneaten food. Picked-at potatoes mingle with the remains of a green bean casserole. Half a burger does the backstroke in a bowl Frosted Flakes.
The same fate awaits them all. A trash bin at the end of the line already brims with the meals no one wanted — meals many hungrier mouths might gladly have accepted. A trayless initiative, inspired by similar programs around the country, should help diners at the College reflect on that waste. If this test run is conducted properly, it could provide a model for the future.
Part of a joint effort between Dining Services and the Student Environmental Action Coalition, the trial is designed to determine how the availability of trays affects food waste. Over the next few weeks, the Caf will intersperse several trayless meals among the regular dining periods. Members of SEAC plan to examine how the trash from the trayless times measure up against the rest. Even if nothing definitive comes of this trash tabulating, with fewer trays to wash, the College will have (temporarily at least) reduced its water waste.
We’re optimistic SEAC will be able to furnish some other statistics as well. But, because of the experiment’s potential policy implications, those conducting it must exercise every caution to ensure its integrity. In particular, we fear the trial’s limited scope may fail to account for the myriad variables that play into diners’ consumption habits.
Food quality, day of the week, a dinner special at the UC or events on campus could all alter preferences. Even student awareness of the program could change behavior. Thus, we suggest SEAC solicit outside oversight for its data collection and analysis. Intuitively, a lack of trays should reduce the amount that goes uneaten. A desire for that outcome, however fervent, though, cannot influence the processes that produce it.
If accurate, objective results show that going trayless will indeed reduce waste, Dining Services may have cause to mix things up a bit at the Caf. While we don’t advocate doing away with trays altogether, changing the current tray system might prove more efficient both in food saved and water used.
Every hot dog, eaten or not, costs something. Whether food goes into bellies or bins won’t much matter when it comes to meal plan prices. And in that respect, waste isn’t so different from theft — everyone pays more in the end because of it.
If Dining Services made trays available by request, we expect excess food consumption would fall as well. Inconvenient though this scheme might seem, a total tray ban would undoubtedly involve greater hardship. This middle way involves some compromise, but in our view, saving more food from the dumpster is a worthier goal than shielding diners from any difficulty.