UT Green Corps: Students trash less food each year

Sara Schleede

From pizza slices to cobbler to untouched plates of Caesar salad, students eating at J2 and Kinsolving dining halls threw away over 30 tons of edible food last school year, according to data from University Housing and Dining.

Forty percent of UT’s waste could be composted but is instead sent to landfills, according to the Office of Sustainability. Since 2008, students have conducted plate waste research to learn more about why people are throwing away their food and how to reduce it. When studies began 10 years ago, 53 tons of food was wasted, and numbers have declined every year since. 

“It’s a larger issue in our country that 40 percent of food gets wasted between it being grown and it being consumed,” said Neil Kaufman, University Housing and Dining’s sustainability coordinator. “Plate waste is just one sliver of that whole process, but it’s a significant part of the process.”

Each Tuesday, a pair of student volunteers collects and weighs all edible food left on plates and bowls ready for the dishwasher. This does not include food scraps such as chicken bones or apple cores. Batches of discarded food usually weigh in every 15 minutes at somewhere between seven and 15 pounds, Kaufman said. 

UT’s buffet-style dining halls eliminated trays in 2009, which led to a 48 percent reduction in food waste. Now, the University is planning to incorporate more compost bins around campus to reduce waste further, said Jim Walker, director of the Office of Sustainability. 

“I don’t have a specific goal, but we would love to get it down to as close to zero as possible, where people are eating everything they get or taking it home,” Walker said. 

These efforts are part of UT’s plan to be a zero-waste campus by 2020, meaning 90 percent of waste that could be sent to the landfill is instead recycled, composted or reused. 

“Our view is our student body is aware that sustainability is an issue that they are going to be wrestling with for their entire life no matter what major, degree or college they’re in,” Walker said. 

Environmental science sophomore Ariana Nehrbass volunteered in Kinsolving Dining Hall a few times last year. She said it was valuable to see what happens to food behind the scenes.

“Ever since then, I feel kind of guilty when I don’t finish everything I eat,” Nehrbass said. “It’s really eye-opening. It helps you realize, ‘I should probably take smaller portions, eat it and then go back and get more.’”

Nehrbass said avoiding purchasing too much food or packing plates too full at buffets can have a positive impact on the environment on a bigger scale. 

“The amount of energy and resources it takes to produce our food is extreme,” Nehrbass said. “Most of our water goes into agriculture. Most of our energy goes into agriculture, so it’s really important that we’re not having to produce more than we actually need.”