Drop the Tray! (Trayless Dining: A Green Strategy for Lean Times)

Posted on April 13, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

In this turbulent economy, I don’t think I can name a single college or university that is not cutting costs. These next few years will be lean(er) times in higher education. However, one lesson that is clearly emerging is that campus sustainability efforts are not being treated as a luxury. In fact, many campus greening initiatives are really gaining momentum precisely because they can help improve a university’s bottom line.

One such initiative is trayless dining. I co-teach a course each fall where students use the campus as a laboratory for learning about sustainability, and as part of the class requirements they work on group projects to improve the environmental performance of the university. When a group of my students decided that they wanted to implement a trayless dining pilot project last September, we initially viewed the initiative as primarily an environmental measure. We would soon discover that dropping the tray opened the door to a much broader web of benefits.

The problem is straight-forward. In dining halls that feature all-you-can-eat meals, people tend to put more food on their trays than they actually eat. And why not? When taking an additional food item carries no extra cost to the student, the incentive is to over-consume. The result is that a noticeable quantity of food ends up in the trash, and it’s this visible display of waste bound for a landfill that will stir-up environmentally-minded students.

In 2005, a group of my students worked on an educational campaign to reduce food waste in a campus dining hall. Using a test and control site, they found that those students at the test site who were targeted with a campaign of waste reduction messages in fact reduced their plate waste by 30%, while the students at the control site showed no change. In their final report, the student group thoroughly detailed the upstream environmental impacts avoided by not wasting food, as well as the downstream landfill issues. Curiously, over the course of the entire semester, we all missed an obvious accomplice to these wasteful activities, and it could not have been more visible: the tray.

My students last fall hypothesized that by removing trays from a dining hall, students would be more careful about their food selections. This would decrease food consumption and waste, as well as the energy and water used to clean the trays and extra plates. However, while they felt they could prove their hypothesis, they feared student backlash and staff opposition. An educational campaign was one thing, taking away trays and changing the operations of a dining hall was quite another.

Fortunately, over the years the class has become a bit of a safe haven for experiments. With the promise of faculty oversight of student work, several administrators have become comfortable with letting students in the class test new ideas. And indeed, our Housing and Dining (H&D) personnel were quite supportive of a pilot trayless dining project. However, they worried about student opinion. To address this, the students on the project team met with the elected leaders of two residential college (dormitory) governments and proposed four lunchtime trayless dining pilots in their shared dining facility spanning a four week period that would be called “Wasteless Wednesdays.” The college governments agreed, and the project was a go.

The first test date brought a mixed reaction. With the student project team on-hand to gauge opinion, they found that almost half of the impacted students were wildly supportive of the trayless dining concept, another 40% were vehemently opposed to it, and the final 10% were completely apathetic. Those of you who work on a university campus will instantly recognize the tendency for students to react strongly or not at all.

Back in the kitchen, the H&D staff reported that plate waste had dropped 30% (the same amount as had been achieved by the educational campaign in 2005), and that the use of water, energy, and cleaning chemicals to wash plates and trays had dropped by almost 10%. They were intrigued. On a typical day in this particular dining hall, they would spend about $1000 per lunch period on food costs, not including the labor for preparation or associated utilities. What if they could reduce the amount of food that they needed to prepare? And not just for lunch, but for dinner and breakfast too (which together cost about another $1,000 per day just for the food)?

The following Wasteless Wednesdays yielded similar results. Student opposition began to wane as the project team continued to listen to the concerns of their fellow students and to work with the staff to take steps to address them, such as moving a supply of flatware out into the dining area so that students didn’t have to balance it on their plates or make a separate trip just to get a fork and knife.

Following the successful pilot project, Housing and Dining staff approached the Rice Student Association (the “SA” is our campus student government) to begin a dialog about implementing trayless dining at all Rice dining halls for all meals. The SA adopted a resolution in February supporting the measure, which was endorsed by our student newspaper, and in March the trays were removed from all dining halls. To date, I am aware of only one complaint resulting from trayless dining at Rice.

Several lessons are clear from our early efforts with trayless dining at Rice:

  • Experimentation! The ability to conduct a pilot project in a safe setting – through a class project – provided a level of comfort for both staff and students to engage in an experiment.
  • Communication! Students in the dining hall appreciated that their concerns were heard – and in some cases addressed – during the pilot project, and further our student government reacted favorably to being engaged in discussions about supporting trayless dining rather than simply being notified that it would happen.
  • Location! In any trayless dining effort, we have come to discover that the geography of the kitchen and dining hall are very important. The placement of flatware and drink dispensers for example can make trayless dining relatively easy or quite challenging.
  • Education! As David Orr wrote in his famed essay “What is Education For?”, faculty and students should work together to study the wells, farms, feedlots, mines, and forests that supply the campus, as well as the places where the wastes are discharged or dumped, and then should participate in the creation of real solutions to these real problems. Trayless dining is one such example. This was an opportunity to create a teaching moment while also fostering student leadership skills.

We have come to discover that removing the tray is akin to removing a keystone, unleashing a variety of benefits. In addition to those already discussed, there are additional energy and labor savings related to reducing the quantity of food to be cooked. Arguably, trayless dining also improves the health of students by discouraging over-eating. I continue to hear from students that they pay more attention to the food that they consume now that the trays are gone.

As universities continue to look for savings opportunities, our experience at Rice echoes what others have also discovered. That is, if you want to save money and improve the environmental performance of your campus dining hall, perhaps the biggest and easiest step to take is to drop the tray.

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Field Notes from a Common Reading: Reflections on a Themed Academic Year

Posted on June 15, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

In the early summer of 2007, a golden opportunity fell into my lap. Unbeknownst to me, Rice University’s Dean of Undergraduates Office was in the midst of launching a common reading program, whereby all entering students in the first year class would receive a common book during the summer as a means of creating a shared intellectual experience once they arrived on campus. The selection committee had considered many titles, topics, and genres, but they felt the time was right to choose a book about global warming. Some eight hundred copies of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change would be appearing in mailboxes of incoming Rice students around the world, and the Assistant Dean of Undergraduates was calling me to see if I was interested in brainstorming ideas for activities related to the reading.

Within five minutes I was sitting in his office, trying to contain my excitement. In our meeting, we decided to create a year-long themed dialogue based on the common reading, branding 2007-2008 the year of “Humans, Nature, and Climate Change at Rice University.”

Some of the activities that supported the year of Humans, Nature, and Climate Change included the following:

  • Student-led discussions about the common reading selection during orientation week, accompanied by a lecture by Professor Neal Lane, former Director of the National Science Foundation and Science Advisor to the Clinton White House.
  • An environmental film series.
  • Signing of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
  • A lecture on Rice’s campus greening initiatives.
  • Distribution of about 100 free or subsidized tickets to attend a lecture by James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a premier scientist on climate change, who was speaking at Houston’s Wortham Center.
  • A month-long dorm energy competition that resulted in a savings of $15,000 – $20,000 in energy, and avoided production of about 85 metric tons of CO2.
  • A series of lectures by William Calvin, a theoretical neurobiologist and Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, entitled “How to Treat Global Fever: An Intelligence Test for Our Times.”
  • A luncheon with an environmental activist working with the Sierra Club and Green Corps on a campaign to block the construction of coal-fired power plants in Texas.
  • A CO2 Forum and Sustainability Fair, in connection with the nationwide Focus the Nation event. Featured speakers included Rice President David Leebron, Houston Mayor Bill White, Nobel Laureate and IPCC Scientist Dominique Raynaud, Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, and Professor Neal Lane. Prior to the Forum, the Sustainability Fair featured approximately 25 student groups, campus departments, and outside organizations hosting booths related to their activities.
  • A series of lectures on carbon sequestration through soil biochar amendment by Dr. Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of soil fertility management and soil biogeochemistry at Cornell University.
  • A visit from the BioTour, a traveling environmental educational program transported in a vegetable-oil powered school bus.
  • A research presentation entitled “Fever Pitch of Chilly Climate? Assessing Rice Student Attitudes toward Environmentalism”

So we were wildly successful, right? Well, for our first attempt at creating such an experience, I believe we did well, but there are many lessons to share.

Looking back on the academic year, I’ve come to realize that choosing and programming a themed learning experience is not terribly unlike creating a thematic mix-tape (or iTunes playlist, for those of you not raised in the era of the cassette tape). On a thematic mix tape, if the theme is too narrow or if the songs sound too alike, then most people are just not going to enjoy it. Who wants to hear 60 minutes of songs about cornbread played on a kazoo and released by the RCA-Victor label between 1928-1935 when a better option is songs about food from a variety of eras and musical genres? Inclusiveness and diversity matter.

A key lesson from our experience was that we were too narrow in how we treated our theme. No matter how credentialed or impressive or articulate the expert, there are only so many times and in so many different ways that the ordinary college student is going to want to be told that their future is in jeopardy because of global climate change. Yes, a subgroup of the student population who are either on academic tracks related to global warming or who are interested in environmental topics in general no doubt found the year to be an amazing journey – as did I – but we arguably failed to truly engage the interest of the average student over the entire year because we over-relied on a narrow offering of lectures that mostly focused on the science of climate change. In the language of the mix tape, we essentially played the same song over and over again.

A second important lesson was uncovered in a study of Rice student attitudes toward environmentalism, led by Sociology professor Elizabeth Long, Sociology postdoc Kristen Schilt, and student Andrea Dinneen. Through a series of focus group interviews, the researchers discovered a clear desire by our students to respond to environmental issues through project-oriented learning. Our more active events – the dorm energy competition and the sustainability fair – were definite success stories, and perhaps this was because they appealed to students’ desires to be actively engaged in environmental solutions rather than to just sit passively and listen to the problems. I was delighted by this finding in part because I am a firm believer in the value of project-based learning, as I teach two courses that connect campus sustainability efforts with the curriculum through group projects.

A third lesson flows from the second. Through the focus groups, our students expressed a preference for content about climate change solutions in the lectures. There was only so much bad news that they could take. We did include several well-received events that focused on solutions, but they came late enough in the year that those looking for solutions had perhaps turned-off to our offerings by that point. We had lost the listener. I must admit a certain level of frustration with this finding in that one could interpret it as students wanting to be told that everything is going to be okay. In my view, the only way we make everything okay is through focused hard work to create lasting change. On the other hand, there are several emerging signs of hope, and I completely agree that providing a more thorough immersion in some of these topics would have improved our overall program.

Finally, I would recommend that those considering themed academic years make their topic selection early enough to allow campus centers, institutes, and faculty the time that they need to create tie-ins with their own events and courses. Because we were already in the midst of planning for our Focus the Nation event, we did have some tie-in to classes offered during the spring semester. However, by choosing our theme just a few months before the start of the fall semester, we narrowed our field of tie-in opportunities.

While I’ve not yet compared lessons learned with our Assistant Dean of Undergraduates, it does appear that we’ve arrived at some similar conclusions. The common reading for the 2008-2009 academic year is an amazing book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin called Three Cups of Tea that chronicles the efforts of Mr. Mortenson to establish schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a tale of hope and hard work, demonstrating the kinds of outcomes that a single person can achieve to overcome poverty and deep cultural divides in this post 9/11 world. The accompanying theme is likely to be global citizenship, a topic broad enough to attract widespread student interest if properly programmed.

Inclusiveness of content. Opportunities for action. Inspiring stories with real solutions. Advanced planning. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a truly successful themed academic year. I’ll report back in a year on this topic to see whether I’m right. My sense is that with this new theme of global citizenship, we’ll have a hit.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional


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