Eating Away at Waste

Montefiore's New Rochelle Hospital adopts a revolutionary digester system to deal with food waste.

By Sean Moores on October 25, 2016

Biodigesters conveniently located in New Rochelle Hospital’s kitchens allow the facility to repurpose food waste into gray water.

Biodigesters conveniently located in New Rochelle Hospital’s kitchens allow the facility to repurpose food waste into gray water.

It’s a problem all hospitals face: What do we do with all of the food waste generated from serving hundreds, or even thousands, of patients, staff and visitors every day?

Montefiore Medical Center, with nearly 50 primary care locations throughout the New York metropolitan area, recognizes that sustainability and environmental health are essential to its mission of advancing the health of the communities it serves. Montefiore’s New Rochelle Hospital produces approximately 4,200 pounds of food waste each week and pays $120 a ton for disposal at landfills. The hospital was combining its food waste with regular trash to be sent to a landfill, but the logistics of collection, transport, storage and removal were a challenge for the organization and worsened a growing ecological problem.

With recent studies showing that nearly a third of all municipal landfill content is organic waste, which produces methane gas 25 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, a more environmentally friendly solution was needed.

“At Montefiore, we understand that the state of our natural environment can have a significant impact on the health of the population. To help mitigate that impact, we are always investigating ways to reduce our overall environmental impact and carbon footprint,” said Jeff Hogan, energy and sustainability manager for Montefiore Medical Center.

The health system looked at several potential solutions to the food waste problem, including dehydration and composting. While many municipalities recommend composting, this places additional trucks on the road and presents health care facilities with waste storage problems. After careful research, Montefiore ultimately settled on biodigestion as the best option available—an approach that Hogan found not only solved its food waste disposal problem, but also aligned with the medical center’s sustainability goals and even improved working conditions for the food service team.

Biodigestion is a process in which organic digesters use aerobic decomposition and hyperacceleration of the decomposition process to quickly convert waste into sewer-safe gray water.

Montefiore partnered with EnviroPure Systems, which provided a customized solution that maximized the amount of food diverted from compactors. And since the custom digesters are conveniently located inside the kitchens and accessible to the staff, they reduced labor by removing the need to transport waste to compactors or composting containers.

“Once the workers place the organic material into the unit, the machine does the rest,” said Hogan. The organic material is ground up and empties into a large storage tank, where natural organisms break down the organic matter into water that is safely discharged through the hospital’s sewer system. Decomposition is accelerated by a proprietary blend of all-natural organic nutrients called BioMix, which fuels the naturally occurring bacteria present in the food waste to increase metabolic efficiency.

“The system even has remote monitoring, so our vendor can detect any errors off-site,” said Hogan. The remote monitoring system also allows the hospital to access data on its waste reduction program and process, so it can determine how to reduce its waste even before it is created.

Montefiore worked with EnviroPure Systems on a customized biodigester solution.

Montefiore worked with EnviroPure Systems on a customized biodigester solution.

“There are always challenges when you introduce new technology,” said Hogan. “Space is the biggest issue with these types of projects. We were lucky in that we had some open space within one kitchen. Our second installation was quite a challenge due to the limited working space. It’s pretty amazing how they were able to accomplish their job in such a tight space.”

The biggest challenge was convincing staff that this was the right path forward, said Hogan. But once the system was installed, the benefits were experienced immediately and outweighed any resistance.

The initial unit was so successful at Montefiore’s New Rochelle Hospital that a second system was installed at the medical center’s Wakefield campus. Since the New Rochelle digester was installed in September 2014, it has processed nearly 248,000 pounds of food waste. Eliminating the need to haul the organic waste has resulted in 233,086 fewer pounds of carbon emissions—the equivalent of removing 21 cars from the road—and saved almost $15,000 in pickup charges. The savings allowed Montefiore to realize a return on investment after just 34 months.

EnviroPure supplied training for staff when the unit was installed, and is available to provide annual training for the kitchen staff to help account for employee turnover and maintain awareness. “Getting buy-in from the staff is critical to making a zero-waste strategy work,” Hogan said. “Everyone has to believe in the cause, and proper training is critical.”

EnviroPure’s guarantee regarding effluent discharge levels was also important to Montefiore. The facility wanted to ensure that the end product would not corrode pipes, and also wanted the option of repurposing gray water for future use without worrying about harmful effluent levels. While the gray water produced by the food waste digestion is currently being discharged through the sewer system, in the future, Montefiore plans to evaluate the potential to incorporate this continuous and sustainable water source into the facility’s irrigation lines.

With the first two biodigesters being such a success, what does the future hold for Montefiore’s food waste system? Solutions are site-specific, said Hogan, and while they are not able to force a digester into locations without sufficient space, the health care system is currently looking toward all campuses potentially adopting the digester technology.

Montefiore’s dedication to sustainability is also being recognized in its local community. In June, Montefiore earned the Westchester Green Business Certification, which is given to organizations that are leaders in incorporating sustainability into all aspects of business. The hospital was recognized for successfully saving millions of gallons of water, preserving landfill space and significantly reducing its carbon footprint by investing in green technologies such as the biodigester.

“Sustainability is a team effort,” said Tony Alfano, Montefiore New Rochelle’s vice president and executive director. “By working closely with our engineering department, we have been able to eliminate organic waste from garbage—and create a healthier environment for our community.”