Last week students in my Environmental Science class measured food waste during lunch servings. In the fall we noticed the significant reduction in food waste as a result of trayless dining. Have things slipped as boredom of food choices creeps in over the academic year? A bit but things are still still much better than last year. We measured 0.21 lbs of food waste per person. This is higher than the 0.16 lbs we measured in the fall but still much lower than the 0.33 lbs measured last year. We can still do better but trayless dining is a good sustainability program to incorporate on college campuses.
One of the observations students made while conducting the food waste audit was the number of napkins used by students in the dining hall. Dining Services uses napkins made of recycled paper and tries to cut down on napkin waste by using carefully designed napkin dispensers. But still there is a lot of use of paper napkins in the dining hall which ends up as waste.
I started thinking about the time I spent working at the Pok-o-MacCready Outdoor Education Center in the Adirondacks. I worked there in the late 1990s when sustainability didn't attract the attention it does today. In our dining hall we had no napkins. Many of the groups that came in were French Canadian so we got a lot of "quoi?" We tought the students to use their socks and we also had one bucket with washcloths in case students really made a mess and needed to wipe their hands. They could get up and go get a washcloth. By the second or third meal the students figured it out and it just became normal.
How would college students react if I took away their napkins and asked them to use their socks? They certainly would not respond to this with the spirit of a sixth grader. Paper napkins at every meal have evolved into an expectation in our dining culture. How did we get to that point?
I decided to do a little research on the history of napkins. It is actually a fascinating story. The first napkin was made of dough! Use the dough to collect the morsels stuck to your face and then you can cook it and eat it. The Romans started using bread to wipe fingers and would throw it to the dogs after. The French expanded use a linen napkin that was communal for the table. Eventually each individual was given a linen napkin. Paper napkin use become common between 50 and 75 years ago. Think of how many meals humans have consumed in their history on Earth without paper napkins. We are talking about 200,000 years of meals. Somehow those 100 billion people were able to eat comfortably without a paper napkin. We can figure out how to get rid of this waste in our dining hall.
Many college campuses collect paper napkins to be composted. The idea of composting has met some resistance at Lasell but with some creativity we could figure out how to make it work. We could also increase the formality of the dining experience and offer washable cloth napkins. There would be an initial cost but this is certainly a more sustainable solution. Or maybe we can borrow the idea from the Poko Outdoor Education Center and just go napkinless. We could stake our claim as the only napkinless and trayless college dining hall in the World!