University of Georgia
September 2015
Food & Nutrition
Dining commons go trayless

Students converse while eating in Bolton Dining Commons on the first day of fall semester. The UGA Food Services has implemented a trayless dining program to save money and improve sustainability. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Dining commons go trayless

UGA saving water, cutting wasted food through new program.

The University of Georgia is saving nearly 107,142 pounds of food and 16,550 gallons of water per semester by removing trays from the dining commons.

The trayless dining program launched this summer in the dining commons on campus.

With the new trayless dining program, instead of heaping food on plates on trays, students simply use one plate at a time. It’s part of an ongoing go-green effort to save money and eliminate food waste.

Food waste

“When we were using trays, customers would select multiple items and beverages before sitting down to eat including, perhaps, an entrée, dessert and numerous beverages,” said Bryan Varin, interim director of food services. “Because of this, many of the items selected were not consumed. We have found that without trays, customers select reasonable amounts on their first pass through our service areas and take more only if they are still hungry.”

Landon Bentley, a senior science major, has been on the meal plan for the past four years. His routine of filling his tray to his heart’s desire had to change with the new system, he said. He now puts his backpack and books down at a table, gets a plate of food and finishes with another trip for a drink and silverware.

The self-professed meal-plan master said he “knows exactly how much food I could eat and be happy. I do welcome the change because it saves food and water in large quantities.”

By the numbers

In February, UGA Food Services and the Office of Sustainability held a two-week-long trayless pilot in Snelling Dining Commons. During the pilot’s first week, trays were provided as normal, and during the second week, trays were removed.

After measuring the amount of food waste (food that students put on their plates but didn’t eat) that came through the tray return, the study showed that 26.7 percent less food (40 gallons or about 280 pounds) was wasted a day. And because the trays didn’t have to be washed, the dining commons used 16.4 percent less water (250 gallons) a day.

Overall, the study estimated that by eliminating trays, 1,103.35 gallons of water and 7,142.8 pounds of food waste could be saved per week.

Cost savings

The trayless dining program impacts go beyond food waste. Because there are no trays to wash, electricity for dishwashers is conserved, less water and detergent are used, and the cost of the trays themselves is eliminated.

Food Services passed the cost savings on to meal plan customers—and for the third consecutive year, didn’t increase prices.


“The trayless dining project is a win-win. UGA Food Services is continuing to provide exceptional dining experiences for our campus community while also significantly reducing energy, water and food waste,” said Kevin Kirsche, director of the Office of Sustainability.

By decreasing food waste with trayless dining, UGA’s environmental footprint lessens.

“In going trayless the students are taking another step in increasing the sustainability of our campus,” said Robert Holden, associate vice president for auxiliary services. “The reduction in wasted food not only reduces the amount of food produced and delivered, it also reduces the amount of water and electricity used by the campus. Reductions in those areas help our community in being more sustainable.”

Students with medical conditions or guide dogs can still ask for a tray from a cashier or manager.

The program is part of Food Services’ ongoing sustainability efforts. Last year, the dining commons stopped using non-compostable items. All food waste from the dining commons goes to UGA’s bioconversion center for use as compost at UGA, thus keeping food waste from the landfill and helping to fertilize campus plants.

—Allison Brannen, Auxiliary Service