Reducing Food Scraps

Plate Waste studies in UT Austin Housing and Dining


When you watch students—finished with a meal in UT Austin’s large residence halls—plunk their dirty dishes onto a rotating stainless steel unit, it is clear that many have licked their plates clean. What you may not know is that this lack of scraps is by design and because of research.

Food waste has become a global issue, and in the United States, about 40% of food grown for the table ends up in the landfill. The cost of uneaten food is enormous in terms of environmental resources needed for production like water and soil quality, transportation and processing of food, and also disposal of uneaten material.

For more than a decade, University Housing and Dining has been researching plate waste on campus. Data collected in spring 2008 measured an average of 5.7 oz of leftovers per person. After implementing a number of strategies to reduce plate waste, including the elimination of trays, waste was measured six months later as an average 3.9 oz per person.

“We wanted to see the impact of going tray-less would have on the amount of food that we viewed,” says Neil Kaufman, Sustainability Coordinator for University Housing and Dining. “When that was implemented in 2008, they found a 50% reduction, and every year since then there have been plate waste studies to see the trends of edible food waste.”

Plate waste studies continue to show a steady decline in scraps. For example, there was an 18% reduction in total waste between the 2015 and 2016 school years. Food that does remain on plates is composted as part of University Housing and Dining’s comprehensive Sustainability Initiatives.

For this year, UT Farm Stand members and volunteers track changes by measuring plate waste every Tuesday from 5:30- 8:00 at both Kinsolving and J2 Dining. The research helps quantify the effectiveness of education and outreach as well as how structural changes affect plate waste. UT Farm Stand is currently looking for four volunteers to help collect data every Tuesday evening from 5-8pm. Students receive a free meal every time they volunteer.

"This is a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes to see the scale of food waste at the individual level,” says Sandra Bustillos, Zero Waste team leader.

Read a recent story in The Daily Texan.

Written by Kristin Phillips, Communications Coordinator, Office of Sustainability