Practical Plan For Hospital Food Waste Recovery

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

Americans throw away an estimated 40 percent of the total U.S. food supply. Hospitals are a major contributor to this waste stream, with food waste making up 10 to 15 percent of the 6,600 tons of waste they dispose each day.

For hospitals with a mission-driven commitment to sustainability, tackling food waste at all levels — from purchasing to food recovery — brings multiple organizational goals into alignment. Source reduction and careful supply chain management can reduce food expenditures in a time of increased budgetary pressure. Donating unused food to recovery organizations provides a community benefit in keeping with the hospital’s mission. And composting the remaining waste, or using other forms of recovery for biofuel or animal feed, can shrink the hospital’s carbon footprint and bring the facility closer to a goal of zero landfill.

The first step in planning a comprehensive hospital food waste program is to examine the waste generated — where it comes from and how much there is. Although hospital food and nutrition managers often first look towards the kitchen, food and other organic wastes are actually found throughout the hospital: in cafeterias and other dining areas; break rooms and lounges; and at special events. A typical 1,000-bed hospital reported serving over 8,600 meals/day, over half of which were patient meals, and the rest divided between the main cafeteria, smaller food service vendors and the doctors’ dining room. Other sources of organics included paper towel waste from bathrooms and yard trimmings from the landscaping department.

After tracking down sources of organic waste, the next step is to quantify it. A waste characterization should look at amounts of viable food for donation, compostable organic waste from pre and postconsumer sources, nonrecyclable paper streams and yard trimmings. An actual waste sort is one option, looking at a one- or multiple-day sample of waste from food service areas to determine the percentage of potentially recyclable and compostable waste.

If a full waste sort is not possible, a visual estimation can be done by observing loads of trash for a period of a few weeks, noting the percentage observed to be food waste, and comparing that to the actual weights of dumpsters or compactors for the same period. Standard metrics also can be used to estimate the amount of divertible waste: 4 to 10 percent of food purchases in a commercial setting become waste before ever reaching the consumer. In cafeterias approximately 0.5 lbs. of food waste is generated per meal tray. For a sample hospital, a waste study found approximately 0.31 lbs of food waste was generated per meal served across all locations.

Recovery Options

Armed with a fuller understanding of the sources and volumes of food waste, a hospital’s next steps are to design a program incorporating both waste reduction and recovery elements. Inside the hospital, food service operations are complex, involving multiple vendors, preparation areas for patient and visitor food services, different types of reusable or disposable tableware in different areas of the hospital, and a variety of disposal operations post-meal, ranging from staffed conveyor belts to tray return racks to unmanned trash areas. Even in a typical hospital using some reusable dishware, an array of disposable products such as cups, plates, trays, condiments and Styrofoam for hot drinks and soups for patient meals are common elements of the waste stream. Because of these complexities, a recovery plan has to address how pre and postconsumer food waste would be segregated from noncompostable waste, how to minimize contamination from the disposable tableware in use, and how to store and transport compostable waste through the hospital building.

The critical step in designing an institutional composting program, however, is not so much managing the internal logistics of the program but rather determining what to do with the organics once collected. Many hospitals would like to compost food waste, but there is a lack of local facilities permitted to accept organics along with yard trimmings. In Southeast Michigan, for example, the market for food waste composting has developed rapidly over the past six years with specialized trainings, support from the Department of Environmental Quality, FAQs, etc. Some yard trimmings composting sites are now accepting food wastes — some with compostables products and some without — thus increasing opportunities for off-site processing. But the options remain slim and many institutions looking for a hauler to transport their food waste to a permitted processing facility find this is largely an unmet market.

In the absence of off-site options, a handful of hospitals have started on-site processing using an in-vessel or vermiculture system. For a hospital, the system can cost anywhere between $6,000 and $500,000 with additional costs for the grinder, structure and utilities. The resulting compost can be used on-site by

the hospital grounds maintenance staff, in an on-site greenhouse or sold to employees and visitors at an on-site farmer’s market. Other hospitals have collaborated with local food growers and farm managers to utilize their food scraps for composting or animal feed.

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