Andy Cornish's Blog

Dr Andy Cornish was raised in Hong Kong, and gained a strong interest in wildlife through spending time in Pokfulam Country Park. He studied Zoology at Nottingham University in England, travelled extensively through Central America where he learnt to scuba dive, and later did his PhD on reef fishes at the University of Hong Kong. Since then, he worked for a year doing coral reef management for the government of American Samoa, and taught in the Dept. of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of Hong Kong. He worked at WWF from 2005 to late 2012 as Conservation Director, and was responsible for four programmes: Climate, Footprint, Local Biodiversity and Regional Wetlands (including management of the Mai Po Nature Reserve). He remains involved in environmental issues on an independent basis.

Just Eat It! UPDATED

A Quest for the Responsible Buffet
March 29, 2013

UPDATE - Response from Hong Kong Hotel Association
Here are the key exerts from the reply - what do you think? Would love to hear from others.
 
All you have written is a reflection of the magnitude of the problem we face in Hong Kong today.  Mr. Nicholas Yim chairs the working group on Food Waste Management Good Practices Guides for Hotels Sector, initiated by Government under a much broader vision designed to use the hotel industry as a role model for food waste reduction, recycling and management. Food-link, Food Angel and EPD are all represented on this working group, which also has 10 hotels and hotel companies sharing best practices.
 
Although the hotel industry represents only some 3-5% of food waste generated in Hong Kong (60% comes from households) and restaurants and supermarkets also produce substantial food waste to produce each day, there is a consensus among our working group members that we are on a high ground and what we do will have an impact on households.  We just need to share our best practices with them.
 
Food waste at our Buffets may appear to be a lot but due to more careful food waste management by our hotels, the quantity of food waste that ends up in landfills is now lower than before, partly because our industry exercises more careful management of the flow of food preparation and serving at our buffet tables.  In other words, it is no longer just putting up food at fixed times without regard to the actual consumption of buffet food at the tables, to the extent that we have sometimes been accused of slowing down our serving at buffet tables and refills.  At the rate that locals in Hong Kong consume food at our buffet tables, it has also become a must to refill them when food is being consumed quickly at our buffet tables.  Yes, locals need to be educated but visitors to Hong Kong also need to be reminded.
 
We believe it is still not the best business practice to remind people to take only what they can consume because it is subjective as to what constitutes “what they can consume” before they have actually tried to consume.  Many also take food from buffet stations to their families at the tables, especially the more elderly and very young ones.  You mentioned Manila and there are many cities and countries where diners leaving uneaten food behind at buffets will be charged by the plate.  Canada and the USA are two countries where some restaurants do this with mixed degrees of success and it is always difficult to assess the level of lost business in doing so in a world of trying to do everything to “please” customers.  The down side is of course it will unlikely attract more customers by putting up such a sign. 
 
We take all your points to be constructive and useful for us to raise at our next working group meeting and together, we can make Hong Kong a better place.  Thank you for communicating with us and please rest assured that we are a responsible industry when it comes to protecting our environment and introducing best practices that are both business effective and socially responsible.
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A few years ago in Manila, I was struck by a sign at a restaurant buffet that casually announced that diners leaving uneaten food would be charged by the plate. Perhaps these are common in other parts of the world, but having grown up in Hong Kong it was the first I’d seen. The language on the sign was neutral, and I doubt it stopped anybody coming in – but I am sure that it DID increase the proportion of food leaving the restaurant via the front, rather than back door.

Fast forward to 2013 and the sumptuous spreads laid out in Hong Kong’s glittering hotels. I’m fortunate enough to have sampled a few this year, and yet again was struck, but this time by the lack of any suggestion that diners should eat responsibly. A friend of mine in the hotel sector confirms that the underlying reason is that the luxury hotels don’t want to introduce any feelings of guilt into their surroundings. This seems hard to fathom as virtually every decent hotel on the planet seems to have introduced the mantra that sheets and towels will only be changed daily if specifically requested.   

I just don’t buy the logic, and find it verging on irresponsible given that we have a major problem with food waste from the commercial sector, and it’s getting worse. According to government data, the amount of food waste disposed of daily from the commercial (and lesser extent industrial) sectors rocketed from 400 tonnes in 2002 to 1,056 tonnes in 2011. And this takes no account of the fuel burned to transport some of the finest foods on the planet, to the buffet table.

Of course hotel buffets are far from the only source of food waste, but they are one of the most conspicuous. A decrease in food waste should even increase their bottom line, but it seems there is a reluctance to rock the boat. Many have moved on shark fin and sustainable seafood though, so change is in the air, and signage along the lines of “We do hope you enjoy your food. Please only take what you can eat to avoid contributing to Hong Kong's landfill issues" is surely not going to reduce business, but will meaningfully support the Environment Bureau in their efforts to reduce all kinds of waste.

This is something that hotels should ideally initiate collectively, so I’m going to write to the Hong Kong Hotel Association, and will share the response with you.

Andy

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