All-you-can-eat cafeterias encourage food waste at college campuses across the United States. Michigan State University students each waste an average of 1.54 pounds of food per week—at a school of 47,800 people that’s 14,191 pounds of food per day. Based on a study of dining hall meals over the course of two weeks, a Virginia Tech student discovered annual rates of 169,055 pounds of edible food waste and 202,797 pounds of total compostable waste.

Traditionally, college students load up trays as they move down the line at dining halls, generally taking more food than they can eat in an effort to get the most out of expensive meal plans. Trayless dining is a surefire way to reduce food waste, in addition to conserving water and energy from washing trays or waste generated from disposable trays. Students at American University wasted 14.4% less food and used 22.5% fewer dishes at lunch and 30.8% fewer dishes at dinner. At Alfred University, combined food and beverage waste dropped between 30 and 50% when the university embraced trayless dining. The University of Maine at Farmington reduced its food waste by 25-30%, conserved nearly 290,000 gallons of water, and saved $57,000 in resources. And at Virginia Tech, food waste was reduced by 29% during the second week of the study when meals were trayless.

Middlebury College in Vermont instituted an on-campus composting program in 1993. Today, 70% of the college’s food waste is composted. Michigan State takes kitchen scraps and plate waste from many of its dining halls and uses worms to compost it. The university also runs waste from one particular cafeteria through a food pulper and then through an on-campus anaerobic digester to convert it to biogas that powers the digester and surrounding buildings. But even a less ambitious composting program (like collecting food waste and bringing it to your local composting facility) still diverts food waste from landfills.

United States Recycling Statistics