The average American wastes nearly 220 pounds of food each year- a figure that has increased by 50% since 1974. And while you might be staring at your screen in bewilderment and thinking to yourself, "well that CAN'T be me," I can assure you that we all play our part in this environmental and inherently cultural conundrum. What might be more frightening to consider, however, is how despite the glaring impetus of our food waste problem we still wouldn't turn down a Never-Ending-Pasta-Bowl at Olive Garden. 

Buffets, including restaurants that offer unlimited refills on any of their portions, are based on the premise of "eat as much as you can and get your money's worth." For many of us growing up in suburban America, going to the neighborhood Chinese buffet meant wearing comfortable pants so that you wouldn't be painfully shoving that last plate of plastic-y brownies and bananas coated in a mysterious red, fruity sauce (seriously- was it supposed to be cherry or strawberry?) down. In the past forty years though, has anyone stopped to think about how the mantra of "one last plate" actually represents how wasteful the American culture truly is? 

Our obsession with food abundance is literally killing our bodies and the planet. 

Research has told us that our obsession with bottomless portions and a cornucopia of endless food has resulted in a massive waste issue. The New York Times found that only ten to fifteen percent of buffet leftovers are repurposed; the rest are thrown out at the end of the night. These scraps make their way to landfills where they generate heaps of climate-change inducing methane gas. 

Moreover, the impact of our food waste also carries moral repercussions because we don't need the excess of calories that many buffets provide. In some cases, patrons will eat to the point of sickness just to prove that they can "get their money's worth." The increased frequency of these affairs (coated in alfredo sauce) poses potential health consequences like increased instances of Type II Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even some cancers. Plus, you just feel like garbage afterwards.

In eating in excess, we divert the calories (thus, resources) away from other people who desperately need food to survive. Part of the issue is that in patronizing these businesses, we are encouraging the production of more and more food- and more and more waste. There's never been a paradigm of people asking for smaller portions at restaurants, so there isn't any incentive for businesses to change their models. 

Defending Food Waste: All in the Name of Profit

A 2014 report by Olive Garden's parent company, Darden Restaurants, defended their unlimited breadsticks model to shareholders by explaining that it was key to "conveying Italian generosity." The company even went as far as to offer a $500 "Lifetime Pasta Pass" that allows patrons to order a myriad of bottomless pasta combinations- with unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks included- for the rest of their lifetime. The deal sold out in a matter of seconds. 

Companies like Olive Garden don't take a hard hit to their bottom line every time someone orders a bowl of overcooked, poorly-seasoned pasta but doesn't eat it. Their corporate financial department factors in how much food is wasted versus the cost of producing the food. In a lot of cases, it's less of a hassle just to toss the pasta than tell a customer "no" to a second helping. There's also no structures in place to empower employees to stop customers from taking more, especially when their tips are predicated on providing guests with a good experience that keeps them coming back for more. It's like creating a steady, dignified wage for hospitality workers would be something- I don't know- beneficial here? 

Offering Solutions

There is some progress being made in reducing food waste from buffets- specifically in the hotel sector. Hotels have been notorious for their food waste; experts estimate that up to half of hotel buffet foods is tossed at the end of the daily continental breakfast shift. In order to reduce cost and waste, many hotel chains offering conventional breakfasts have abandoned the buffet in favor of a traditional, server-based hospitality approach.

Similar approaches have been considered within the traditional buffet restaurant sector, but haven't been as transgressive as sustainability-advocates would like. Instead of advertising "All You Can Eat," some buffet chains (like the corporation that runs Old Country Buffet and Home Town Buffet) have changed to a "All You Care To Eat" model- claiming that they "never create 'consumption challenges'" for guests. However, this doesn't change the fact that on any given day, any item will produce 5-25% waste. Even in conventional sit-down restaurants, waste is inevitable. 

No, Seriously- What You Can [Actually] Do

I could make the argument here that we should just all stop going to chain restaurants (I do just that here). But it's apparent that nothing is going to stop good 'ol Uncle Joe from demanding yet another basket of Texas Roadhouse rolls. Instead, we can start to orient ourselves in a way that promotes sustainable food consumption when we eat at any restaurant. That includes being a member of the #CleanPlateClub, ordering smaller portions when available, and taking your leftovers home with you (and actually eating them). 

There are also systemic ways we, as consumers, can influence the food paradigm in restaurants. Before you place your order, ask how large the portions are and explicitly ask them to leave certain foods off your plate if you know you're not going to eat them. You can also ask questions about composting and waste management of leftovers. If you feel uneasy about how food waste is being managed, voice your concerns on a comment card or contact the management. 

Ultimately, it's up to the public to cause enough ruckus to put buffets out of business. After all, our health and the health of the planet depends on it.