Use China. Same Price. Big Difference.

Why is it so hard to talk about environmentally-conscious decision making at HBS?

As you walk through the Spangler Dining Hall today, take a look at the plates that we choose for eating. At most tables, more than half of the students use disposable plates despite the availability of environmentally sound alternatives. Polystyrene foam has a useful life of minutes or hours, but continues to exist for millennia. Why do we as HBS students choose to generate unnecessary waste on a daily basis? More importantly, why is it so hard to change our ways?

Initially, I thought that dining services might intentionally prompt wasteful behavior to save on dish washing costs. I was dead wrong. According to Bill Monnen, the Director of Operations at Restaurant Associates (which runs the Spangler concessions), washing dishes is the more economical option. “China plates are only a small percentage of what my dishwashers clean, so even if we used no china, I would still have the same labor cost, the dish machine would still run all day costing me for the water and power to heat the water and run the machine.”

Procuring the Styrofoam and disposing of it, on the other hand, do contribute to costs. Restaurant Associates spends approximately $35,000 a year (that’s almost tuition, folks!) buying disposables for our use. The actual disposal costs are unknown. However, with over 500,000 clamshells filling HBS trashcans each school year, disposal costs are bound to be significant. In fact, disposal of Styrofoam has been deemed so costly that over 100 American cities have banned the substance all together. Berkeley, California and Portland, Oregon led the way over 20 years ago, and Oakland’s ban just came into effect this month.

HBS, however, is behind the times. Students do not recognize that costs of disposables are real, even if not paid explicitly at the cash register. So what can we do about it?

This year Monnen and his team have significantly increased the availability of reusable cups, introduced reusable china bowls, encouraged recycling of the clear plastic clamshells, and asked their employees to prompt students with the question, “is that for here?” in order to encourage the use of reusable cups and plates.

However, in an era when “the customer is always right,” Restaurant Associates is finding it tough to influence consumer behavior. With a bit of student pressure, they agreed to place signs in the dining hall encouraging students to choose reusables. These signs state, “Use China: Same Price Big Difference.” Unfortunately, the ambiguity of the word choice makes it seem as though Restaurant Associates is encouraging students to consider business opportunities in Asia rather than curb unnecessary use of disposables. Restaurant Associates appears reluctant to use more specific language, fearing that explicitly encouraging environmental behavior would compromise the dining experience and atmosphere.

Would raising environmental awareness in the dining hall be met with a backlash? I decided to check it out. About half way through last semester, I sat down with a few classmates in the Grille for lunch and asked the table what we could do to nudge “for here” customers to choose reusable cups and plates. Results around the table were mixed. One classmate, eating off of Styrofoam, pointed out that he had simply never thought about the issue and would choose more carefully next time. Another student looked up from his Styrofoam packed meal and stated that he did not appreciate the value judgment implicit in the conversation. Ouch. If the issue cannot even be discussed, our behaviors will never change.

If we are going to take the HBS mission seriously in the cultivation of leaders who make a difference in the world, we need to learn to communicate about issues of environmental importance, and lead our organizations to do the same. Use of disposable plates and cups are among the least controversial of choices we make. Far more controversy and environmental impacts arise from the cars we drive, the temperatures of our thermostats and the foods we eat. To understand the issues and respond appropriately, we must be receptive, and even eager, to understand the implications of our decisions. If we are not among the best suited to lead a future shift in consumption patterns, then who is? Let us take the challenge of environmental stewardship and lead by example in our everyday lives.