Analyzing Traylessness

I’ve been meaning to get around to this post for a while, but the buns keep piling up…

Anyway, without further ado, I present what I’m pretty sure is a first: a scholarly study on traylessness.

It was written by my food-waste friend Andy Sarjahani and two of his Virginia Tech colleagues, Elena Serrano and Rick Johnson. The study stemmed from a two-week experiment Andy ran back in 2008, when he weighed waste with and without trays. Andy Sarjahani tossing

There are a few ways of counting the reduced waste. If you use the total weight of tossed food, Tech had 30 percent less edible compostable (EC) waste without trays (I got 29.6%). But by comparing the mean waste per meal (as in Table 1), traylessness brought a 41 percent reduction.

One surprising result, as seen in Table 2, was the difference in waste at different meals. Food waste increased 76 percent from lunch to dinner. I’d guess that this probably reflects students eating quick lunches between classes and differing cultural perceptions of lunch and dinner.

The study also includes the following ideas on what food service companies can add:

Economic incentives for students not to waste, such as à la carte pricing; small batch cooking; sourcing locally grown and in-season foods; donating appropriate and safe leftovers to food banks and/or shelters; and composting what cannot be donated. Finally, educational efforts targeted toward students (and food service personnel) are essential in promoting awareness and supporting sustainable practices and any proposed changes.

In total, the paper is a nice piece of work, not surprising since the original project was partly responsible for the school going trayless in July 2008 and Andy getting hired as Tech’s Sustainability Director.

One final note: Andy has opined on multiple occasions that trays aren’t the real problem; all-you-can-eat is. As I quoted Andy in my original post on the study:

I think “all-you-can-eat” is really the culprit. Going trayless is like a cortisone shot—it treats the problem on the surface, but not at the root.

I agree, but removing trays is a pragmatic first step to reduce food waste.

This entry was posted in College, Trayless. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted June 3, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    All-you-can-eat has become synonymous with all-American. Instead of considering the health and environmental benefits of portion control our society would rather be given the carte blanche to have as much of whatever they want.

    You and Andy are right, traylessness may help but it’s not enough. Peoples’ ideas about what has good value, what equates with wealth and how we show status (all of which can be tied to our desire for an all-you-can-eat dining style) need to shift.

    I don’t know how to tackle such large social issues but I’m glad to hear people are trying. Even if it’s only baby steps to start.

  2. susan
    Posted June 5, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Love your website.
    In addition to wasting tons (literally) of food, all-you-can eat dining halls force light eaters to pay for heavy eaters (and big wasters)’ lunch. In this economy, with so many familes scrounging between the couch cushion for pennies to eke out tuition money, one-price dining halls are as unfair as they are wasteful.

  3. Posted June 7, 2009 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Le Commensal restaurant in Montreal, Canada serves delicious vegetarian food priced by the weight of your plate. Each patron receives a tray on which to put their plate, water, silverware, napkin, etc. but at the check out, you simply put your plate (s) on the scale and pay accordingly. It is THE best way to reduce waste and “waist.”

    Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
    Food Sleuth, LLC
    Columbia, MO

  4. David Schwartz, RD
    Posted June 8, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Nice work Andy! We need sustainability directors at all of the schools/hospitals/institutions. It would create more jobs and reduce energy/food/water waste.

  • Buy the Book