Bus Reusable Utensils but...

Don't Bus Throw-Away Utensils and Tableware

... because bussing disposables encourages their use
and makes reusable items less economical.
styrofoam cups

The Economics of Throw-Away Items

The concept is quite simple --

Use of disposable dinnerware shifts costs to society in increased resource usage and increased waste. A major effect on cost is that restaurants and vendors have trained consumers to self-bus throw-away dishes.

Bussing disposable items creates a disincentive to reusable items, and has the effect of making disposable items more economical and re-usable items less economical.

As a secondary effect, food service workers have less tasks if there is less handling of dishes and dishes are not cleaned. Again, this is a false economy because the employer will only hire the number of employees necessary to run the business.

This economy is distorted because throw-away food businesses have succeeded in convincing customers to bus their own throw-away dishes, but not bus reusable items. This was done to give throw-away food a competitive edge, but of course makes reducing waste less economical.

Recycling, if actually implemented, has only a trivial effect on the waste stream. [1] Recycling is generally not re-use.

Still, most businesses will accommodate the desires of customers if customers are sufficiently persistent. This has already happened in some sectors. Re-usable travel coffee mugs were uncommon until 2001 (although re-fillable plastic mugs were in use from about 1990 in some regions). Re-usable grocery bags were uncommon before about 2005. Now, these items are fairly standard.

A Counter-Approach - Insist on Reusable Items and Don't Bus Throw-Away Items

The first approach is to ask for non-disposable items:

Bus reusable items, but leave disposible items at the table.

Provide reusable items.

Don't Bus Throw-Away Items

In its simplest form, disposable items are left on the table... but that is frequently not feasible.

As an alternative, bus some, but not all throw-aways. That "breaks the chain" of the dis-economy of convincing consumers to bus throw-aways.

Where not feasible, alternatives include:
Busing some but not all tableware (above).

Returning the items to the counter, separating or sorting the items and placing them on trays or counters, and general comments.

Conversely, help return and sorting re-usable items in buffet and counter service restaurants. In other words, if there is no table service, make the re-usable items more economical.

If re-usable items or trays are mixed with throw-away items, return the re-usable items.
There may be commercialized social pressure to bus disposables, but that does not require thoroughness! Sometimes it is practical to neatly place the disposible items at an adjacent (empty) table.
Even if bussing some disposible items, comment that you are doing so even though it is "unethical".

What to Say and How To Respond

This is a political issue which runs counter to (commercially-created) social mores. That sometimes (not always) makes individual action socially imprudent.

Here are some approaches on how to approach the issue and what to say.

A likely result

It's hard to determine the result some 50 years after the initial promotion of busing of disposables, in part because the original business model was to compete with full service lunch counters. It is very possible that a significant percentage of customers not busing disposible items will "flip" the economics. If so, the result would be the use of durable tableware. This would especially be the case if restaurant managers see that durable tableware is more likely to be returned than disposable items.

Doesn't this place the burden on the workers?

Possibly, but more likely not:

  1. The restaurant will only hire the number of workers that are needed. This is where the diseconomy of disposable utensils and tableware is shifted back to the business generating the waste. If the cost savings of not using reusable dishes is offset by the cost of retrieving the waste, there is less incentive to create the waste.

    This is more than a passing issue. If consciencious citizens start leaving disposable dinnerware on the tables, the restaurant must have sufficient workers to clean up the restaurant's disposable dishes. This defeats the purpose of the throw-away items.

  2. Tables must be cleared in real time; whereas a restaurant can allow reusable dishes to accumulate during peak periods. Therefore, if a restaurant must clear the tables, they must hire sufficient employees to handle the task during peak periods.

  3. Returning re-usable tableware (where appropriate) could reduce employment, but employees seem to appreciate the gesture.
The economics are that use of disposables shifts the economical burden from their payroll to municipal waste disposal.

Institutional Food; University Food Service

Institutional food service, e.g., schools, universities, afford an excellent possibility to organise Don't Bus Throw-Away Items campaigns. This not only impacts the institution, but also promotes a culture of intolerance for waste and disposable service.

The economics are more direct in the university environment, in that not busing throw-aways makes the use of durable tableware economical. If students and others are trained to bus throw-aways, changing (back) to durable tableware becomes a major economical hurdle.

Political Action

Some municipalities use various techniques to limit incursion of formula fast food restaurants (chain fast food or "throw-away food" restaurants) and the like. There are different ways of zoning this, but one approach is to set limits on a percentage of restaurant items packaged in disposable packaging.

Say Something


Is this Anti-Business?

It's pro-Business and especially pro-small business. Businesses which get away with all-disposable service in the U.S. provide re-usable service at their locations in other countries. This shifts costs from society to the business, stimulates employment, stimulates the economy and provides a more pleasant experience for customers who aren't fed on foam and paper.

Regardless, "disposing" of throw-aways represents less waste, which is the important thing.

... but don't re-usable dishes consume water and energy?

Yes, both in manufacture and washing. Still, the chemical or paper pulp processes required for making disposable items consumes a substantial quantity of energy and water.

I've seen an estimate of a stainless steel coffee mug consuming 24x the resources of a disposible cup.   (This is of course a one-time manufacturing cost. If one is not interested in high end Dewar flask-type coffee mug, then thrift store coffee mugs consume no manufacturing resources.)   Obviously, even if one were to accept that "24x" at face value, that presumes one would dispose of a stainless steel mug after 24 uses -- not likely!

But ...

Some Restaurants have been Very Successful with Re-Usable Tableware

These are "order-at-counter" restaurants. In an example I have seen, the restaurant has a convenient location for used (soiled) tableware. Customers generally return tableware to the dish return return area without anything more elaborate than the return bins being at a convenient location. This allows the restaurant to offer very nice "tableware" service without providing table service. More to the point, the restaurant is positioning itself to compete with other "café" restaurants, rather than chains. (This is a "mainstream" restaurant and bakery; not a specialty restaurant, which is significant because it shows that "mainstream" customers are willing to return reusable tableware.)

It works.

What Others Say

Links and Related Pages   ("carry", "bus", "busing", "bussing")

some approaches on how to approach the issue and what to say.


[1]^     The effectiveness of recycling is limited because:
  1. The percentage of materials returned for recycling is low.
  2. Even if recycled, recycling is much less efficient than re-use. (i.e., there are far less resources involved in dishwashing, especially at a food service facility.)
  3. In fast food restaurants and similar public venues, one should only bus re-usable items and not bus disposable items.

[2]^     "Styrofoam" is a trademark of Dow Corning, but is often used generically (especially in North America) to describe polystyrene. The primary significance of this is that it appears that Dow Corning does not market "Styrofoam" cups, so "Styrofoam" cups do not really exist. If only that were true!   (There's also an ambiguity about whether "Styrofoam" is expanded polystyrene foam or extruded polystyrene foam, a distinction that is probably of interest primarily to plastic manufacturing engineers.)

First posted 4-Feb-12. Last revised 27-May-18.

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