Less Food Waste

By Sapna Thottathil, PhD Health Care Without Harm’s (HCWH) Healthy Food in Health Care Program and San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility on September 23, 2013

How to eliminate food waste in health care

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 5.02.32 PMFour and a half pounds. That’s the average amount of trash every American generates per day. Only a third of that waste is either recycled or composted. The rest—close to 164 million tons—ends up in landfills every year.

The largest component of this waste stream is food. Each year, 35 million tons of food waste is thrown away by homes and businesses.

Unfortunately, food waste has a large environmental footprint. As food decomposes, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Twenty percent of U.S. methane emissions come from landfills.

Producing food itself, before it even reaches landfills, is resource-intensive. Our food system has an environmental impact, from growing, harvesting, processing, and storing food. Unfortunately, some estimates claim that up to 50 percent of the food produced around the world is wasted. “By wasting food, you are also wasting the resources that went into growing it,” notes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website. Almost 70 percent of the world’s water use is for agricultural purposes, and millions of tons of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are applied to agricultural fields each year.

Composting at the UCLA Health System

Hospitals contribute significantly to the problem of food waste. Between 10 to 15 percent of a hospital’s waste stream is comprised of food. Many hospitals, however, are increasingly monitoring and reducing the amount of overall food waste they send to landfills by composting.

The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Health System recently instituted such a composting program at its 535-bed facility. With a food budget of close to five and a half million dollars, it currently serves over 1,000 patient meals and has close to 4,000 cafeteria transactions per day. UCLA is now diverting six and a half to seven tons of food waste per month from landfills through composting. This waste includes not just food scraps, but compostable cups, plates, and utensils as well.

UCLA has a contract with a waste hauler that collects its food scraps three times a week and then takes the material to a facility where the food scraps are turned into fertilizer. Since August 2012, UCLA has composted over 68 tons of food waste and compostable kitchenware. Much of this food waste has also been ground up by a Somat Pulper machine in its kitchen. Using a Somat Pulper has allowed UCLA to compress its food waste down in volume, by squeezing out excess liquid.

To encourage composting in its cafeteria, UCLA tries to make the process as straightforward as possible for patrons. “Anything that will hold food, we’ve tried to make compostable,” says Teresa Hildebrand, sustainability programs manager at UCLA Health System. Additionally, UCLA has placed signs above each of its waste containers and throughout the facility, to inform people about which bins hold compost and which hold recyclables.

To make more of an educational impact, UCLA refers to trash bins in its cafeteria as “the landfill.” “We felt that it would be more of an impact to say ‘landfill’ so that customers know where it will go,” Hildebrand states.

It is not just in the educational realm where UCLA has focused its efforts. Food service staff members have talked to their vendors to make sure they serve pre-prepared items (like sushi) on compostable dinnerware, which can then be disposed of in the compost bins. Additionally, UCLA has trialed a variety of dinnerware to accommodate hot food and to keep track of sales. Finally, in a few weeks, UCLA will also hold an internal sustainability meeting to brainstorm ways to divert more waste, including how to prevent waste in the first place. UCLA’s goal is to achieve zero waste by 2020, a goal that the University of California Office of the President has instituted for all University of California campuses throughout the state. “We have seven more years to get there,” shares Hildebrand.

Given UCLA’s successes, Hildebrand has several recommendations for other hospitals interested in starting composting programs:

  • Reduce food waste first, and then start composting, to reduce any costs associated with the program.
  • Launch an educational campaign before and after introducing composting into your facility. Consider a countdown, to raise curiosity and engagement around composting. “Make a big deal out of composting, and put a positive spin on it, so people know it’s coming,” suggests Hildebrand.
  • Educate staff. Put facts about compost into newsletters and signs in the cafeteria. “Keep people talking about the program,” advises Hildebrand.
  • Post your progress. “Show how much waste is being diverted and reinforce your message,” Hildebrand recommends. “Show how much people are helping the environment.”
  • Follow-up with your waste hauler and visit the recycling and composting facilities.

Additional tips for hospitals on reducing food-related waste:

  • Use reusable and/or recyclable dinnerware and trays in cafeterias and with patient meals.
  • Encourage staff to use reusable water and coffee containers.
  • Use compostable dinnerware and takeout containers (made from 95-100 percent biobased materials such as corn, potatoes, sugar cane, and virgin and recycled wood fiber), and be sure that your compost system captures these.
  • Implement a composting program for organic materials (such as food waste and compostable food service items).
  • Track food waste to keep informed about where food waste is being generated and can be prevented.
  • Prevent overproduction by reducing portion sizes, cooking to order, providing room service, and adjusting meals based on the volume of leftovers.
  • Reduce trim waste, spoilage, burnt/dropped/contaminated items.
  • Implement a useable food donation program (for example, donate unused hot tray items to a local homeless shelter).

For more information

Track your food waste and your impact with the variety of tools offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. EPA: http://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/resources/measurement.htm

Check out Health Care Without Harm’s guide to choosing environmentally preferable food service ware:

Read Greenhealth magazine’s October 2012 issue to get more tips on reducing food waste: https://magazine.practicegreenhealth.org/reducing-food-waste/


Global Food. Waste Not, Want Not. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 2013.

Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2011.

Reducing Food Waste for Businesses. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2013.

Practical Plan For Hospital Food Waste Recovery. Biocycle.net. 2012.