NEW YORK - University students eating at one buffet-style dining hall produced less food waste when the facility removed the trays students had used to carry food, a new study has found.
At the single facility, researchers estimated the switch away from using trays saved about 25 total pounds of solid food waste at each lunch and dinner meal.
It may also have encouraged students to eat less - although the study team didn't measure food consumption before and after the change.
"Especially amongst sustainability-minded institutions and dining services, this was looked at as a way to reduce food waste," said Victoria Getty, from Indiana University in Bloomington, who worked on the study.
"The only negatives are that patrons are going to complain for a while," she told Reuters Health. "They're used to having trays, and now it's kind of an inconvenience."
Getty and her colleague Krisha Thiagarajah compared five days worth of meals before and after the switch from trays to a tray-less system, during the same time in the facility's menu rotation. About 500 patrons visited the all-you-can-eat dining hall at each meal.
Once the trays were ditched, the researchers found the amount of solid waste students threw out decreased from 4.39 ounces per person to 3.58 ounces - a decline of 18%. There was no significant change in the amount of liquid waste produced after the switch.
Getty and Thiagarajah also surveyed food service workers about the change to a tray-less system and found they were generally on board with the environmentally-conscious move, which they said made both food prep and dish cleaning easier.
The workers noted a tradeoff, however - students broke more dishes and left more of a mess at dining hall tables once trays were removed, according to findings published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"These are huge facilities producing a lot of food, and if people are wasting that much food because they have a larger surface area to put that on, why not try to find ways to reduce that?" said Elena Serrano, a nutrition researcher from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
"I think it's one of the simplest techniques or strategies to promote the concept of sensible portion size. To me it's just a win-win," she told Reuters Health.
Serrano, who wasn't involved in the new research but studied the switch away from trays at her own university, said getting rid of them could be a "mindless technique" to encourage students to take less food - thus reducing food waste and possibly over-eating as well.
For other universities considering removing trays from their dining halls, Getty said the most important thing is to get students on board with the switch using "some good marketing."
Although it's a bit more involved, Serrano said facilities can also use monitors showing how much food is being thrown out to increase patrons' awareness of the sustainability effort.
"Somehow having that feedback so people see how much food is being wasted and understand how they're connected to it can help reduce food waste," she said.