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In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. (Source: USDA Economic Research Service, 2019) This estimate of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. This amount of waste has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change:

  • Wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills.
  • Food waste, which is the single largest component going into municipal landfills, quickly generates methane, helping to make landfills the third largest source of methane in the United States. 
  • The land, water, labor, energy and other inputs used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food are pulled away from uses that may have been more beneficial to society – and generate impacts on the environment that may endanger the long-run health of the planet.

A college campus wouldn't be complete if it didn't have a place where students and faculty could go to grab breakfast, lunch and dinner. Depending on the size of a particular school and the way the buildings are arranged, there may be many cafeteria facilities scattered throughout the campus. This portion focuses on environmental issues that apply to cafeteria operations.

It is highly likely that almost everyone has at least one meal a day in the cafeteria, and many students probably eat three meals a day there. A very large quantity of food is stored, prepared and disposed of on any given day, and good management is required to keep things running smoothly. Colleges and universities should be especially concerned about health and safety, as well as environmental issues. There are also a number of best management practices that can be implemented to minimize the amount of energy and resources that are used in the cafeteria facilities.

Navigate through this page to learn more about these Cafeteria/Dining Best Practices

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Energy-Saving Appliances (Refrigerators/Freezers, Ranges and Ovens, & Dishwashers)

Green Procurement

Used Oil

Everyday, leftover food and table scraps are thrown into your cafeteria trash. The trash must be picked up and transported to a disposal facility at a significant financial and environmental cost. Did you know that this cost could be reduced? Cafeteria food scraps and kitchen prep waste are recyclable through composting. Food scraps are wet, heavy portions of the waste stream, and diverting them for re-use can result in reduced garbage tipping fees and useable end products. Adequate space is needed to be successful in collecting and composting organics. Here are some ways to create space for food scraps generated in cafeterias on campus:

  • If space permits, reserve a spot on campus to locate an on-site compost area.
  • Designate a good-sized area in the kitchen prep and dishwashing areas for collection containers and design the cafeteria garbage stations with logical and obvious places for all recyclables, including plate scrapings.
  • Designate an area on the loading dock for extra 50-90 gallons totes used for collecting organics.
  • If space constraints or other issues prohibit on-site composting, identify nearby composting facilities and/or haulers to determine if an off-site program might be feasible.
  • If you're a gardener, you probably already know the value of composting when it comes to your eggplants and nasturtiums. Now, many industrial and environmental groups are taking advantage of what you have known for years.

    Basically, composting uses decaying organic material to fertilize the soil. Many food-service organizations have begun composting as a means of controlling waste, as well. This practice is most practical in a cafeteria setting, since most composting operations accept contaminated food.

    Additionally, many of these composters are sponsoring pilot projects in cooperation with the food-service industry, collecting non-recyclable paper such as soiled paper napkins, tray liners, molded pulp containers and polycoated paper containers, as well.

    Everyday, leftover food and table scraps are thrown into your cafeteria's trash. The trash must be picked up and transported to a disposal facility at a significant financial and environmental cost. Did you know that this cost could be reduced? Cafeteria food scraps and kitchen prep waste are recyclable through composting. Food scraps are wet, heavy portions of the waste stream, and diverting them for re-use can result in reduced garbage tipping fees and useable end products. Adequate space is needed to be successful in collecting and composting organics. Here are some ways to create space for food scraps generated in cafeterias on campus:

    1.         Designate a good-sized area in the kitchen prep and dishwashing areas for collection containers and design the cafeteria garbage stations with logical and obvious places for all recyclables, including plate scrapings.

    2.         Designate an area on the loading dock for extra 50-90 gallons totes used for collecting organics.

    3.         If space permits, reserve a spot on campus to locate an on-site compost area

Activity:  Recycling 

The following best practices for recycling in a college or university cafeteria setting are recommended:

  • Provide separate waste bins for separate waste streams. For example, place a waste bin for aluminum cans next to every regular trash bin.
  • Use restrictive lids with the same shape as the recyclable component (i.e. circle for bottle/can, thin rectangle for paper)
  • It is very common for college students to read the newspaper in the cafeteria, especially while dining alone, so place a newspaper recycling bin near the exits; 34 percent of virgin material is saved by using recycled newspaper.
  • Have cafeteria staff use reusable trays, cups and silverware instead of disposable items, which end up in a landfill.
  • When it is necessary to use disposable goods, use paper plates and napkins in your cafeteria facilities made from recycled goods; producing recycled paper takes half the energy and creates half the air and water pollution that producing virgin paper directly from trees does.
  • Use paper bags instead of plastic/styrofoam sandwich containers.
  • Initiate a composting program for the food waste that is generated in the cafeterias on campus.
  • Advertise which waste is to be recycled. Some items to consider are: steel/tin cans; glass jars and containers; aluminum foil and cans; plastic utensils; paper lunch bags; plastic containers for bulk food supplies; corrugated cardboard boxes; and milk cartons.
  • Make the collection process as easy as possible for students, faculty and staff. The simpler it is to sort and recycle, the greater the participation rate will be. Place recycling containers in a convenient location near the non-recyclable bins. Make sure that large recycling containers are placed in the kitchen area of the cafeteria so that the staff can recycle bulk-size containers.
  • Create signs to clearly identify recycling containers and their intended contents. Anticipate what people may do wrong (e.g., clearly mark that food scraps are not to be mixed with recyclable paper).
  • Reduce waste in the cafeteria by switching from serving food to offering food.
  • Encourage people to bring metal silverware and cloth napkins to use with their lunch. These items can be taken back to dorms or apartments to be washed and used again.
  • Encourage faculty, students and staff to use reusable coffee mugs by providing dishwashing materials in the lounges in buildings on campus.
  • Buy food products in bulk instead of individually packaged. For example, use large condiment containers, rather than individual packets.
  • Use bulk milk, juice and soda dispensers rather than individual cartons, bottle, or cans. Encourage people to use reusable plastic or glass bottles rather than using paper cups.

Benefits of recycling, as sited by to the U.S. EPA:

· Recycling paper uses 60 percent less energy than manufacturing paper from virgin timber.

· Recycling a glass jar saves enough energy to light a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.

· Recycling one tin can saves enough energy to power a television for three hours.

· For each ton of paper you recycle, you save:

  • 17 trees;
  • 64 gallons of oil;
  • 42 gallons of gasoline;
  • 4,210 kilowatt-hours;
  • 7,000 gallons of water;
  • and 3.5 cubic yards of landfill space.

In essence, recycling is the separation, collection and processing of products and materials, and the manufacture of these materials into new products. A college or university campus is a wonderful place to start a recycling program--particularly in the cafeteria, where a large amount of waste is generated. By initiating a recycling program, not only can your cafeteria drastically reduce waste with minimal effort, it can also:

    • Cut your school's garbage hauling costs.

    • Generate additional revenues for your school.

    • Provide opportunities for community partnerships.

    • Reduce campus litter and the amount of space taken up by garbage cans.

Activity: Energy-Saving Appliances

This section of the tour lists some best management practices that you can employ (with regard to appliances) in the cafeterias on your campus in order to reduce energy consumption.

If you opt to replace these appliances, you'll notice that, in the United States, all refrigerator, freezer and dishwashers are sold with yellow EnergyGuide labels to indicate their energy efficiency. These labels provide an estimated annual operating cost for the appliance and a guide to comparing it to other models.  Another label to help you identify energy-efficient appliances is the ENERGYSTAR label. Promoted by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the ENERGYSTAR is awarded only to appliances that exceed the minimum national efficiency standards by at least 20 percent. These standards have been in place since the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) of 1987 and are reviewed and updated periodically by the DOE.


Energy-efficient refrigerators differ from less efficient models in the following ways: more efficient compressors, improved insulation, better door seals, improved condensers and evaporators, and more precise temperature controls and defrost mechanisms.

Energy-saving tips:

  • Clean refrigerator condensers every three months.
  • Don't keep your refrigerator and freezer too cold. Recommended temperatures are 37°F and 40°F for the fresh food compartments of the refrigerator and 5°F for the freezer section. If you have a separate freezer for long-term storage, it should be kept at 0°F.
  • Regularly defrost manual-defrost refrigerators and freezers; frost buildup increases the amount of energy needed to keep the motor running. Don't allow frost to build up more than seven millimeters (one-quarter of an inch).
  • Make sure refrigerator door seals are airtight. Test them by closing the door over a piece of paper or a dollar bill so it is half in and half out of the refrigerator. If you can pull the paper or bill out easily, the latch may need adjustment or the seal may need replacing.
  • Cover liquids and wrap foods stored in the refrigerator. Uncovered foods release moisture and make the compressor work harder.
  • Move refrigerators out from the wall and vacuum their condenser coils once a year (unless you have a no-clean condenser model). Refrigerators run for shorter periods with clean coils.
  • Don't force your refrigerator to work harder than necessary by locating it near a heat source, such as a radiator, heating vent, kitchen range or dishwasher.
  • Don't suffocate refrigerators by enclosing them tightly against the wall. Since most refrigerators reject heat from the bottom and/or back, they need adequate clearance to allow sufficient airflow. Two general rules-of-thumb are to double the space recommended by manufacturers for refrigerator installation, and to allow two inches of airflow around the refrigerator. Allow at least one inch of space on each side of a freezer to allow good air circulation.
  • If the refrigerator has an "energy-saver" switch, adjust it to the setting that provides maximum energy savings without causing condensation on the outside of the unit.
  • Thaw frozen food inside the refrigerator because it will help cool the interior and eliminate the use of energy for thawing in an oven or microwave.
  • Let food cool before putting it in the refrigerator so it won't have to work so hard to keep the food cool.
  • Organize the contents in the refrigerator to ensure good air circulation around the items.
  • Keep freezers full; full freezers perform better than nearly empty ones.

Purchasing tips:

  • An ENERGY STAR® refrigerator uses at least 20 percent less energy than a similar-sized refrigerator that just meets the minimum federal standards. ENERGY STAR® refrigerators also save, on average, $14 per year and $168 over the course of its useful life.
  • Look for a refrigerator with automatic moisture control. Models with this feature prevent moisture accumulation on the cabinet exterior without the addition of a heater. This is the same thing as an "anti-sweat" heater. Refrigerator models with an "anti-sweat" heater will consume 5 percent to 10 percent more energy than models without this feature.
  • Consider upgrading refrigerators; older models use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a refrigerant, and newer models use halogenated CFCs (HCFCs), which are more environmentally benign.
  • When selecting a new refrigerator, choose a manual defrost model because it uses half of the energy that automatic defrost models do (just remember to defrost it periodically).
  • Ask the following questions:
  • Are rebates available from local utilities or government agencies for the purchase of the specific model?
  • What is the energy rating? (Check the EnergyGuide label.)
  • What do I need to know about the refrigerator in order to use it most effectively? (Example: How many inches should be allowed around the refrigerator for airflow?)
  • Innovative technologies:
  • Evaporator fan controllers for medium-temperature walk-in refrigerators

Ranges and Ovens

Energy-saving tips:

  • Clean ovens while they are still warm (after removing food).
  • Cook as many things at once as possible.
  • Use microwaves when possible, because they use less electricity than conventional electric cooking methods (microwaves cook faster and at a lower wattage).
  • Preheat ovens only when necessary, and keep the preheating time to a minimum. Unless you are baking breads or pastries, you may not need to preheat the oven at all.
  • Food cooks more quickly and efficiently in ovens when air can circulate freely. Don't lay foils on racks. If possible, stagger pans on upper and lower racks to improve airflow.
  • Use glass or ceramic pans in ovens. You can turn down the temperature by about 25°F and cook foods just as quickly.
  • Check to be sure the oven door gasket is tight. Adjust or replace gaskets as required.
  • Keep range-top burners and reflectors clean; they will reflect the heat better and save energy.
  • Match the size of the pan to the heating element; more heat will get to the pan and less will be lost to the surrounding air (a 6-inch pan on a 8-inch burner will waste over 40 percent of the energy).
  • On electric stove-tops, use only flat-bottomed pans that make full contact with the element (a warped or rounded pan will waste most of the heat).
  • Whenever possible, use a pressure cooker. By cooking food at a higher temperature and pressure, cooking time is reduced dramatically and energy use is cut by 50-75 percent.
  • If you are purchasing new products for or upgrading your cafeteria, here are some purchasing tips:
  • Try to buy self-cleaning ovens because they use less energy for actual cooking because of higher insulation levels.
  • Gas ovens use much less energy compared to their electric counterparts because the fuel is used directly for cooking. A gas appliance also costs less than half as much money to operate as an electric one does, provided it is equipped with electric ignition instead of a pilot light.
  • With electric cook tops, there are a number of new types of burners on the market: solid disk elements, radiant elements under glass, halogen elements and induction elements. Solid disk elements and radiant elements under glass are easier to clean, they take longer to heat up, and they use more electricity. Halogen elements and induction elements are more efficient than conventional electric coil elements. Induction elements require that you use only iron cookware (not aluminum).
  • The range hood should ventilate to the outside and not simply re-circulate and filter the cooking fumes. This is especially important with gas ranges. Be careful with the size of the fans--too large a fan can waste energy and cause back-drafting of combustion gases into the facility. This is a major concern with large downdraft ventilation fans used with some cook-tops and ranges. Ask about make-up air ducts available for these models.


The efficiency of a dishwasher is measured by a term called the energy factor, which is analogous to the miles per gallon for a car, but in this case is measured in cycles per kilowatt-hour of electricity. About 80 percent of the total energy used by dishwashers goes toward heating the water, so the best way to improve the efficiency of a dishwasher is to reduce the amount of water needed to clean the dishes.

Energy-saving tips:

  • Don't pre-rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Rather scrape off plates and empty liquids. Soaking or prewashing is generally recommended in cases of burned-on or dried-on food. If you must rinse dishes, use cold water.
  • Clean the filter at the bottom of your dishwasher (make sure it is not clogged with food) regularly to keep the machine running efficiently.
  • If the dishwasher has a "sani" setting or booster heater, reduce the temperature on the hot water tank to about 120°F. This will significantly reduce overall water heating costs.
  • Load dishwashers to capacity before running them.
  • Purchasing tips:
  • Using EnergyGuide labels can save you money; also look for the ENERGY STAR® label, which indicates that the dishwasher is energy-efficient.
  • Purchase dishwashers that allow you to choose between heat-drying and air-drying. Heat-drying elements draw considerable electricity; circulation fans for air-drying use very little.

Activity: Green Procurement

Sustainable practices are important for the long-term health of the environment and can be implemented in the cafeterias on your campus. Green procurement, or "buying green," as it is commonly referred to, is one way to benefit the environment and your institution by minimizing environmental impact and costs associated with purchasing and waste disposal. Prior to selecting/purchasing products, it would be beneficial to consider the following questions:

  • What is the environmental impact of the product? Is it recyclable and energy-efficient?
  • What kind of packaging is used? How could the packaging be minimized?
  • What are the primary raw materials used?
  • Is the product life appropriate to its task features? Is the product durable?
  • Are wastes minimized throughout the product's life cycle?
  • Does the product's design minimize the use of nonrenewable resources?
  • At the end of the product's life, can constituent materials and components be reused, recycled or recovered?
  • Sustainable practices that apply to a cafeteria facility include:
  • Buying supplies and items that are durable, reusable, and recyclable.
  • Procuring supplies and items that are non-toxic and made with recycled content.
  • Specifying that purchased items be delivered in bulk or with minimal packaging.
  • Identifying environmentally preferable products that meet basic quality specifications.
  • Establishing environmental screening for all new purchases.
  • Encouraging energy and water efficiency in cooking and washing operations.
  • Providing washable, reusable dinnerware, and implementing recycling programs for cans, bottles and other waste.
  • Donating excess/leftover food to area homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
  • Establishing composting programs for food wastes that cannot be donated.
  • Encouraging water and energy conservation by employees.
  • Maximizing energy efficiency in lighting, heating and cooling the facility.
  • Using the least toxic cleaning materials and buying them in bulk.
  • Informing students, faculty and staff about sustainable efforts and encouraging them to participate.
  • Providing recycling opportunities to members of the public that visit the facility.
  • Implementing water and energy saving mechanisms in the facility.

Activity: Used Oil

If your cafeteria generates or handles used oil, there are certain good housekeeping practices that you should follow. The following management standards are common sense, good business practices designed to ensure the safe handling of used oil, to maximize recycling, and to minimize disposal.

Even when not required by environmental regulations, the following best practices are recommended.

  • Label all containers and tanks with the appropriate label depicting the containers' contents. Care should be taken to avoid labels that may inappropriately denote a federal or state regulated waste.
  • Keep containers and tanks in good condition. Don't allow tanks to rust, leak or deteriorate. Fix structural defects immediately.
  • Never store used oil in anything other than tanks and storage containers. Used oil may also be stored in units that are permitted to store regulated hazardous waste. Tanks and containers storing used oil do not need to be RCRA permitted, however, as long as they are labeled and in good condition.
  • Take steps to prevent leaks and spills. Keep machinery, equipment containers, and tanks in good working condition and be careful when transferring used oil. Have sorbent materials available on site.
  • If a spill or leak occurs, stop the oil from flowing at the source. If a leak from a container or tank can't be stopped, put the oil in another holding container or tank.
  • Contain spilled oil. For example, containment can be accomplished by erecting sorbent berms or by spreading a sorbent over the oil and surrounding area.
  • Clean up the oil and recycle the used oil, as you would have before it was spilled. Remove, repair or replace the defective tank or container immediately.
  • EPA encourages used oil generators to use a secondary containment system to prevent used oil from contaminating the environment.

Grease Traps

Oil, fats and grease in cafeteria wastewater have caused problems for many years. Oil and grease in the wastewater coat the inside of the pipes. Solid food particles in the wastewater stick to the oil and grease on the inside of the pipes, which clogs the pipes in the facility. When wastewater contains a certain amount of oil and grease, oil and grease traps are used. These devices employ the principle of gravity; the lighter fats and oils immediately separate, rise to the top and remain trapped in the retention area of the tank. The heavier, clean water portion of the flow is allowed to exit and be discharged into drain lines.

Grease trap maintenance is usually performed by a facility's maintenance staff. When it is done properly and at the right frequency, grease trap maintenance can greatly reduce the discharge of fats, oils and grease into the wastewater collection system. The required maintenance frequency for grease traps depends on the amount of fats, oils and grease a facility generates. It is a good idea for facilities to establish best management practices (BMPs) that will reduce the amounts of fats, oil and grease that are discharged into sanitary sewers. In many cases, a facility that implements BMPs will end up saving money because they end up lowering the frequency at which their grease traps require maintenance.

These practices below may be required, and if not, will reduce the frequency at which you perform maintenance on the grease traps in your cafeteria.

Grease Trap Maintenance Procedures

  • Do not use hot water, acids, caustics, solvents or emulsifying agents when cleaning grease traps.
  • Bail out any water in the trap to facilitate cleaning. The water should be discharged to the sanitary sewer system.
  • Remove the baffles if possible.
  • Dip the accumulated grease out of the interceptor and deposit in a watertight container.
  • Scrape the sides, the lid and the baffles with a putty knife to remove as much of the grease as possible, and deposit the grease into a watertight container.
  • Contact a hauler or recycler for grease pick-up.
  • Replace the baffle and the lid.
  • Record the date and the volume of grease removed on a maintenance log.

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