Excessive food waste is one of the biggest problems confronting United States universities and colleges as they transition to more sustainable operations. Discarded food is second only to paper as the source of the largest volume of waste produced in the U.S. Now, thanks in large part to student pressure and student initiatives, U.S. universities and colleges are beginning to adopt policies that reduce the amount of food wasted on their campuses and divert what food waste is produced to composts or food banks.

Hundreds of universities and colleges across the country have adopted tray-free dining as a means of reducing food waste. A study at American University found that, over a six-day period, tray-free dining reduced food waste by 32 percent. That, combined with the water conserved because there are no dirty trays that need to be washed (Williams College reduced water consumption by 53,000 liters (14,000 gallons) annually through their tray-free dining program), makes a huge dent in wasted resources.

The University of Maryland is an example of an institution that eliminated trays in one of its dining halls to cut back on food waste. But after taking that step, university officials didn’t see a clear solution for what to do with the food waste that was still being produced. A group of enterprising Maryland students decided to take action and founded the Food Recovery Network (FRN), with the goal of delivering cafeteria leftovers to local food shelters. Right from the start, the new student organization was delivering an average of 70 to 90 kilograms (150 to 200 pounds) of food per night to area shelters. The initial success of the program (from 2010 to 2012, the FRN donated approximately 30,000 meals) led the students to expand the program. So far, FRN has chapters on 11 campuses across the U.S., but the founders have set their sights high - “envision[ing] the end of unnecessary food waste.”

Composting is another way to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills. Composting brings with it the added benefits of enriching the soil and reducing methane gas emissions. According to the EPA, only 3 percent of the 30 million metric tonnes of food waste generated in 2010 was composted. Students are working to increase that percentage. At Dickinson College, students run a campus farm and are composting daily deliveries of salad bar scraps from the cafeteria. In 2005, Dickinson expanded the compost program into a campus-wide initiative with student farm workers, partnering with facilities management to ensure that the campus food waste is composted.

Starting May 2013, the Compost Club at Sarah Lawrence College is going from zero to sixty by embarking on an effort to compost all of the college’s food waste. The club also works to integrate compost education into SLC classes to spread the benefits of composting to the student body. In 2011, students at Connecticut College teamed up with college staff to develop a composting program. They created a student-run, campus-wide program where students oversee the running of the program, interface with college administration, and train new student members.