Mission: Zero waste

Coe College's own research makes the case for going trayless. And that's just one step the school is taking toward a zero-waste goal.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—At 1,300-student Coe College, dining services is making great strides to become a zero waste campus. Tom Wieseler, general manager for Sodexo at the account, said that during the past several years, the campus has made major changes to reach its zero waste goals, including implementing comprehensive composting, recycling and sustainability programs.

"We'll never get to absolute zero waste, but overall as a college we need to start teaching these kinds of things outside of the classroom," Wieseler said. "We did a tray waste study so we would have a better idea of where we could make changes. Our students waste 3.2 ounces per person at lunch and dinner and 2.5 ounces at breakfast. I consider myself an average male and I eat about 23 ounces of food at lunch and dinner. That means, on average, my students are wasting about 1/7 of what they take. This gives me information I can display and teach them that wasting any natural resource can't go on indefinitely."

Wieseler said he would like to do more research about the amount of food taken and wasted by different groups such as athletes so he could have more comprehensive information to share. When the study was being conducted, Wieseler complied with the environmental club's wishes and displayed the actual waste in bulk in the dining room. So waste from breakfast would be displayed at lunch with appropriate signage and the per-student figures. And although Wieseler admitted this was an in-your-face approach, he found it to be very effective. The department also installed a pulper and since May 2007, Wieseler has been taking that pulped product to a local solid waste facility for composting.

"So far we have diverted 59,080 pounds of waste from the landfill," Wieseler said. "Kitchen food waste is sent to the pulper rather than the trash. During a test period when we went tray optional for student dining, our composted amount went down 300 pounds per week with all other variables being the same."
When trays were optional, 21.6% of students used a tray at breakfast, 44% used one at lunch and 45.9% used trays at dinner. Now that the department tested what going trayless could do for its waste goals, the plan is to go completely trayless this May. Wieseler said all he has left to do is submit an article to the student newspaper explaining that the switch to trayless dining is coming.

"I have to let the students know that this makes an impact," Wieseler said. "May's a good time to roll this out since we're not feeding as many students, then we serve summer camps and then by Fall I'm hoping trayless will be no big deal.