Tray return

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Marvin A. Tort


I had breakfast at a 7-Eleven yesterday. I had a hot meal with hot coffee. It was a satisfying, and inexpensive, experience. The sad part, however, is that no matter how much a store tries to maintain order and cleanliness, its effort will always fall flat when up against customers who have little regard for the store itself and their fellow customers.

You see, when I came in, there was already a group of people dining. And while there were plenty of seats available, table space was somewhat limited by the fact that other beings who had already finished eating had left their empty food packs and plastic water bottles on the tables. Perhaps these diners came from outer space, and on their planet, garbage walks to the bin on its own.

Yes, it is a pet peeve. But you cannot help but pity the poor girl behind the counter. At seven in the morning, the place was packed and she was all alone to man the counter, run the register, give change, heat and serve food for dine-in customers, and also clean up after thoughtless and inconsiderate aliens who descended on the store to consume earthly goods then leave a mess.

This is not unusual, and perhaps can even be considered commonplace particularly in many fast food outlets. Aliens come in, eat, then leave a mess for earthlings to clean up. What I don’t understand is how these aliens can be made to line up, pay for their food, carry their laden trays, and walk to an empty table to eat, but cannot be bothered to return the same tray with their empty dishes on it? Now you understand why I am confused?

People will readily carry their trays with food to eat, but will not readily return the same trays with their empty dishes on it? Why? Is it because the dishes are “dirty”? Well, who used them, anyway? Is returning the tray with empty dishes far more difficult to do than carrying a tray with mounds of food ready to eat? Or is it because bussing out a tray is such a dirty job and beneath “special” people called “customers”?

In many cases, the practice at home also becomes evident outside of it. If you are accustomed to having someone at home take away the dishes for you, then perhaps even when dining outside, you tend to leave things where they are. This, of course, is with the expectation that someone else will come along and clean up after you.

After all, even the most modest of urban homes will usually have at least one kasambahay or helper to do most if not all of the domestic work. Simply put, why should you concern yourself with such matters when you are paying someone else to do it — even if you are actually giving out slave wages? The fact is, you are paying someone else to do the “dirty” work for you.

In the same manner, when you go to a fine dining restaurant, or even a buffet dinner, you are not expected to bus out your own dishes and wash them yourself. Of course not. The “service” is part of your bill, and you gladly pay the “service charge” precisely to enjoy the convenience of having someone else wait on you. Even if it still means you get up to get your own food.

Smart Tray Return Robots at Koufu at Punggol Plaza — HTTP://WWW.RFACTORY.SG/

But is it the same case with fast food outlets and convenience stores? The fact is, in fast food outlets, it is practically self-service. You line up to order and pay, you carry your own dishes to your table to eat. Why can you not be expected or be made to carry back the same dishes, now empty, when you are done with them? When you came to the table it was clean. Why can you not leave it in the same state?

In Singapore, the matter has become a controversy of sorts. Late last year, if I recall correctly, the Straits Times carried a report about the Jurong West Hawker Centre and its decision to charge customers a returnable deposit for trays. Customers pay a 20-cent deposit when they buy food and get the money back when they return the tray. Both hawker center customers and hawker center stall owners were against the scheme.

But I am all for it, if it can be done here. There is a cost to cleaning, a cost to service, and a cost to giving service people decent wages. If we want to give people a decent living, then we should be ready to pay them for their service. But if we want to keep food service costs down, then we should be prepared to serve ourselves and to use a convenient tray-return system.

Cleaning up after eating is the decent and responsible way of leaving a dining area, and showing our concern and consideration for others who will come after us. But the thing is, unless convenience stores and fast food outlets actually implement a well-thought-out tray return system, then people will be less inclined to pick up after themselves.

One option is for food courts to charge or add a tray/dishes deposit to food cost, which is promptly returned as soon as the empty dishes and used utensils — and not just the trays — are returned. Of course, along with the deposit should come the provision of better facilities and services, clearly marked waste bins, designated tray/dish return areas, and appropriate restrooms and drinking stations, among others.

An alternative to the “deposit” is for fast food outlets and convenience stores offering dine-in services to charge extra but to separately itemize “service charge” from food cost, so that this can be earmarked specifically for service crew, pursuant to a new law. This way, people will understand that they are paying a little more for having the “convenience” of having someone pick up after them.

What is more important is that people should be reminded through signs and markings in stores to clear their plates and utensils from tables after dining, and that numerous “return points” should be visible and accessible, even to people with disabilities. Unless a system is in place that will make it easy for people to do the “right” thing, then the effort will be for naught.

Homes and schools should teach particularly the young about picking up after themselves. But if they cannot, then maybe we have better chances by abdicating such a role to fast food outlets. It will be great for children to see Ronald McDonald and Jollibee cleaning their own mess, returning their trays, and setting aside waste and used dishes, because it is the right thing to do.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.