“Can I help you sort out the leftovers?” I ask my supervisor, already on the lookout for some Tupperware. “Yes, please,” she replies, passing me a bin and a roll of plastic bags. Unfortunately certain of the answer, appalled, I asked “do I have to throw it all away?” a question which, apparently, is only worthy of a careless nod. Staring at the three enormous pots of pasta, numerous bowls of chips, two untouched trays of stew and a full cheese platter, together with a multitude of other freshly-prepared dishes I am about to bin, I suddenly realise that what my eyes see differs from what my manager does. She has done this hundreds of times before – potentially every single night – for God knows how many buffet dinners and privately-financed events; all she wants is to clear up as quickly as possible and to avoid the hassle of rethinking the leftovers’ disposal.
Half an hour in, as my movements become mechanical, I begin to gain a deeper insight into the reasons behind the striking apathy underlying the staff’s obedience to instructions. While overhearing a conversation about doughnuts that the head waiter has judged ‘too sweet’ for his refined tastes and snobbishly dunked in the bin, I’m multiplying what is happening in the kitchen I am working in by all the professional kitchens in Edinburgh. My mind then wanders further: the UK, Europe, the Global North…the thought of the possibility of such a lavish quantity of wasted food overwhelms me. Horrified, I conclude my waitressing shift ashamed of my actions but helplessly carrying out orders, while the managers open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a most successful service.
On my way back home, feeling guilty for being part of such a wasteful evening, I wonder if I could have done something to save what could have fed a whole village, maybe more.
I am incapable of erasing the picture of the dozen bin bags lying on the floor. I know I would have happily sorted out the food myself had I been allowed to, even if it meant working overtime, just as I’m sure local volunteer groups would have been eager to distribute the leftovers to those in need. I inevitably start questioning the ethics behind the conspicuous consumption of the clueless guests I have served earlier; do they know what goes on in the backstage of the exhibitory, status-marking festival of abundance they have paid for and, if so, do they care at all? There is no doubt in my mind that none of the so-called ‘élite’ thought for a second about the wider implications of their food’s production and disposal.
The overall ecological footprint of the night must have been unspeakably detrimental. The carbon emissions generated to support this destructive lifestyle have an inconceivably severe impact on the environment. Climate change is no longer just a distant threat, it is by now common knowledge. My manager must know this. The chef and the head waiter must know this too. They are so profoundly involved in this world: they could surely have a say or, at least, try to make a change, if only they were willing to challenge the oppressive upper management’s profit-prioritising orders. But the indifference in their eyes showed the utter unconcern and passive acceptance of the consequences of their habitual actions, the product of a career in the hospitality sector. How can we hope for a cleaner, greener future when food waste is dealt with in such an irresponsible manner? How can Edinburgh have the guts to call itself a ‘sustainable’ city, if the pillars of sustainability – environmental protection and social justice – have so brutally been violated on only one occasion, emblematic of a behavioural category characterising a whole, unmindfully greedy social class?
Image: David Goehring via Flickr