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Green nudge: trayless cafeterias for reducing food waste

We do throw out an incredible amount of food, and little do we think about the role that trays in cafeterias play in this. But the truth can be surprising.

A tray of spicy dishes
At the moment I’m living in wonderful Singapore. A couple of days ago I got shown around the city by an Indonesian guy, who lives partly in Indonesia and Singapore. After a long walk at the Marina Bay, we went for some Asian food at a cafeteria. Asian food is amazingly delicious, but, as you probably already know, it is usually also really really spicy.

In the cafeteria I grabbed a tray and walked around selecting a series of dishes – and as long as there was room on my tray, I kept putting food on it. But imagine the size of a tray, and compare it with the size of an average plate – it may be difficult to eat up a plate of food, but very few people are actually able to eat an entire tray of food! Unintentionally, I was headed either for a severe stomach ache, or making a rather large contribution to the global problem of food waste.

After trying most of the food, burning off my tongue and sweating chili out of my forehead I had to give up. This definitely wasn’t in the favor of my Indonesian friend who pointed at me: “Eat up! Don’t throw food away!” And he couldn’t be more right. (Though, I am pretty sure, that I would have pasted out eating up the rest).

Trays of food in Singapore

How trays contribute to food waste and how to prevent it
We do throw out an incredible amount of food, and little do we think about the role that trays play in this. However, a study at Alfred University showed that just by removing the trays food and beverage waste dropped between 30 and 50 percent – that meant 1.000 pounds of solid waste and 1123 gallons of liquid in just one week.*

Besides causing a major amount of food waste, trays also use a massive amount of water when cleaned; the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College in Western Massachusetts saved estimative 14.000 gallons of water after eliminating trays last spring.**

So, as my Indonesian friend said, we shouldn’t throw away food. Still, with room left on our tray it comes to appear half empty (or half full if you may) which makes us believe that we yet haven’t taken enough. In fact, one could say that the size of a tray provides a subtle, but misleading cue about a descriptive norm (how much other people usually eat).

So a simple nudge that doesn’t require any financial help: just take the trays and throw them away. And there you have it – a green nudge.

*The Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives; 14,000 gallons of water saved.

**Alfred University; amount of food waste amount.