Ditching the tray at the all-you-can-eat buffet in the student cafeteria has allowed the University of North Carolina, for instance, to save 30,000 gallons of water (113,000 liters) a month, for the simple reason that the trays no longer have to be washed.
Getting rid of the trays has also resulted in less food being wasted, said Monica Zimmer, spokeswoman for food services giant Sodexo.
"We know that the average student takes 1.4 entrees when they have a tray. When they don't have a tray, it's harder to carry. So they take less," Zimmer told AFP.
"One pilot study we did showed food waste was reduced by up to 50 percent on one campus," Zimmer told AFP.
The food services company Aramark measured food wasted from more than 186,000 meals served at over 25 higher education institutions during the academic year.
It found that "food waste quantity was reduced by 1.2 to 1.8 ounces (550-800 grams) per person per meal when trays were removed from dining facilities."
"This represents a 25 to 30 percent reduction in food waste per person," Aramark said.
Since trays fell by the wayside at the University of Maine, the cafeteria has dished out 56 pounds (25 kilos) less food per person, per year.
That represents a saving of not only 14 tons of food but also of 31,000 gallons of water (117,000 liters), and more than 500 pounds (240 kilos) of detergent.
The total amount of money saved is 79,000 dollars per year -- not a sum to be sneezed at.
The movement towards what is eloquently called "trayless dining" began roughly a year ago, and students have embraced the effort to promote environmental stewardship.
More than one-third of the 600 campuses served by Sodexo are already trayless, including reputable institutions such as the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Georgia Tech, and Tulane in New Orleans.
"The savings of water is quite astounding. Trayless dining saves about 200 gallons of water for every 1,000 meals served," Zimmer said.
According to Scott Myers, director for food and vending at University of North Carolina, the move has allowed the university to reduce water consumption by more than 30 percent.
Trayless dining is also improving the diets of students, now less able to stack up copious quantities of food to take back to their table.
"Sodexo adopted this program for its environmental benefits, but making for a better diet is definitely a benefit -- an unintended consequence, maybe," said Zimmer.
But there is a downside to going trayless -- it can wreak havoc with cleaning bills.
When a Sodexo executive wanted to show that he could carry a main course, salad and coffee up a flight of stairs at Georgia Tech, he tripped and soiled his suit.
"Our executive was trying it for the first time," Zimmer explained.
"He didn't have quite as much practice as the students, and anyway, students are very good at balancing."