By: Rhea Kundamal
Buffets are a key part of the dining experience – whether it be in hotels, buffet-style restaurants, soup kitchens, or even in a college dining hall. The word “buffet” itself has been around since the 19th century – elucidating just how important buffets are to dining culture. Whilst buffets may be an enjoyable experience for many, there are serious impacts due to the amount of food that is wasted in buffets. These impacts include, but are not limited to, environmental concerns due to increases in food waste and how the effects of food inequality are exacerbated by buffets. However, potential solutions to the problem of food waste in buffets are reallocating buffet food waste into other and new food, implementing legal policies, and encouraging a minimization of waste on the retail side through fines and incentives. Thus, these key solutions would enable the essence of a buffet to continue, whilst minimizing the multitude of negative effects.
Buffet restaurants are unsustainable due to the amount of waste they produce which poses environmental concerns. It is also inevitable that buffets will lead to overproduction and food waste. This is because it is difficult for restaurants to match supply and demand, and it is better to oversupply than undersupply, as the latter would lead to exasperated customers. Nearly half of the food at buffets is wasted, and this contributes to the yearly 108 billion pounds of food wasted in the United States. This 108 billion pounds of food waste is equivalent to 130 billion meals, and it is worth more than $408 billion in food thrown away each year. Thus, it is evident that buffets cause a huge amount of waste. In terms of environmental concerns, BIO Intelligence Services (2010) approximated that one kilogram of food waste produces almost two kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions and consequently results in the exhaustion of 2.9 tons of natural resources, including species extinction and loss of biodiversity. Food that is wasted usually ends up in a landfill, where it creates a greenhouse gas called methane, and methane is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (EPA 2016). This is especially concerning, as food is the largest component of landfills, as it makes up 24% of waste. These greenhouse gasses consequently contribute to climate change. Gasses such as methane also have negative effects on our health since high levels of methane may limit the quantity of oxygen breathed from the area, leading to headaches and nausea. Therefore, it is evident that buffet food waste is unsustainable and leads to environmental degradation.
Whilst buffets are environmentally negative, they do have a few positive effects, such as playing a key role socially. This is because buffets are a great way for people of different taste pallets and proportion preferences to eat at one restaurant. Whilst our society does not necessarily rely on buffet food, there is a strong preference for it in hotels, especially at breakfasts. This can be evidenced by a study in a hotel in Bangkok, that demonstrated that a shocking 1.3 tons of food that was edible was wasted in one single week (Lephilibert 2016). Furthermore, Tanford and Suh (2011) concluded that buffet meals help improve hotels’ financials directly through hotel guest spending and also indirectly because of higher customer satisfaction. Therefore, it is likely that primarily due to economic reasons, hotels would likely not stop buffets. Even if they agreed to shut down buffets, there would always be some form of a buffet existing, such as soup kitchens, and so buffets are nearly impossible to fully eradicate.
Peggy Chan, a social entrepreneur who is scaling traceable, regenerative, and circular food systems in Asia, highlights how buffets help increase the inequality for food, “especially that of the nutritious kind (fruits, vegetables). When people go to buffets, they tend to eat a lot to ensure value for money – what foods are they actually consuming the most? Plus, there aren’t many ‘healthy options’ on them – it is a place of indulgence…I would say that the food waste that comes from buffets is close to 50%. Much of this is unable to be passed on to the needy due to ‘regulations’ – this rule needs to be abolished.” She feels that the current model of buffets can be adapted to be more sustainable, proposing that instead of having all the food on display, certain items can be cooked to order. Or, having an a-la-carte style type of buffet, where people can eat as much as they want, but order it through a server. Chan strongly believes there needs to be a re-think of how buffets are set up in the future, as buffets promote over-consumption and waste. It goes beyond buffets and is a systematic problem in the food system, involving exploitation and yield productivity over humans and the environment. Caitlin Daniel, Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, agrees with Chan’s ideas, and feels we must abide by the Good Samaritan Law – where a person donating excess food in good faith is protected under the act from any liabilities.
One potential solution to this problem is reallocating buffet food waste into other and new food. Whilst there are many buffet restaurants in the Bay that waste food, an exemplary case study of a restaurant that turns buffet food waste into pizza is “Shuggie’s Trash Pie”. In their pizzas, they include greens that are starting to yellow, upcycled sauce from cauliflower leaves, and dough made from byproducts of cheese and oat milk. This restaurant, therefore, targets reducing its environmental impact as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility, by limiting their food waste and making their food in more sustainable ways to fight climate change. Thus, whilst there are many traditional buffet restaurants and regular restaurants that contribute to food waste, there are case studies in the Bay Area, such as “Shuggie’s Trash Pie” that are fighting food waste and leading the drive in becoming more eco-friendly. Though it is understandable that this type of solution may not be very popular due to social connotations, it is still a valid option to help reduce food waste.
We can also analyze case studies of exemplary countries, such as Denmark. They have the least amount of buffet food waste. Whilst the USA wastes 150,000 tons per day, Denmark only wastes 700,000 per year. This is because the country has implemented policies such as “Denmark against food waste”, which unites more than 25 food producers and retailers in order to achieve their voluntary shared goal of halving food waste by 2030. This could possibly imply that the need for change has to come from within the food producers and retailers. Therefore, a possible solution could be focused on the producer-retail side, by encouraging more responsible production, better communication, and a more efficient supply chain to minimize waste. Continuing on the line of the producer-retail side solution, we can look at implementing a charge to consumers for any food they waste. However, the magnitude of the fine and how strict the retailers are at implementing the charge will impact the effectiveness of the solution. Furthermore, buffet retailers may deal with greater costs due to their pursuit of adapting their current supply chain and production lines. They would also have to invest in improving communication methods, which are costly. Therefore, although there are negatives to the producer-retail side solution, the positives override the negatives. This is because a focus on this solution would allow the key essence of buffets, socially and economically, to survive, but the nature of buffets would transform into a more sustainable consumption method.
Locally, in California, there are about 6 million tons of food wasted each year. However, a recent plan signed in June of 2022 by San Francisco Officials may help distribute seven million pounds of food to the hungry. This new plan would make it a requirement for supermarkets and restaurants to save food that is still in good condition, as well as limit what they send to landfills, thus reducing food waste. Moreover, it was introduced to assist San Francisco’s efforts to satisfy SB1383’s goals, which include lowering the amount of organic waste sent to landfills by 75% in order to achieve state climate targets. This potential solution is an interesting take, as previously, many food companies and buffets in the Bay were unable to donate excess food because of temperature and food safety regulations. This is because once the food has been cooked up to temperature, it cannot be refrozen, otherwise, companies are opening themselves up to liabilities. Whilst this solution appears great, we must take into consideration the fact that it was just recently signed, thus there will likely be a time lag before we see actual results, due to bureaucracy and how buffet retailers will have to adapt to this new plan. In spite of this, it is likely that this solution will be highly effective and successful in minimizing food waste, as it is signed and supported by officials and government signing, providing it with greater legal backing. This solution thus highlights that there is positive change on the way, although there may be some time before the effects are seen properly.
To conclude, it is evident that the current model of buffet-style restaurants is unsustainable, due to its impacts on the environment, the inequality it helps fuel, and the potential health risks as a result of greenhouse gasses. Even though it may be near impossible for buffets to totally cease to exist, implementing policies about food waste and changing the structure of buffets to align with those in other countries, are effective methods to mitigate the negative impacts of buffet food waste.
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