Reducing Food Waste

By Sapna Thottathil, Lucia Sayre, and Emma Sirois Health Care Without Harm’s (HCWH) Healthy Food in Health Care program on October 4, 2012

Food waste clogs landfills and contributes to climate change. What is the solution?

The amount of food that’s thrown away each year contributes to several environmental and social problems. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that on an annual basis, roughly one-third of the food produced globally is wasted at various points from production to consumption. Americans are especially guilty: We produced more than 34 million tons of food waste in 2010, 97 percent of which ended up in landfills.

The unmanageable size of U.S. landfills is a huge problem. Several northeastern states have little landfill capacity left. What’s more, rotting food in landfills contributes to climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As food decomposes, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Currently, landfills contribute more than 20 percent of methane emissions in the United States.

Food Packaging

Fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meats are not the only contributors to the food waste problem. Plastics and paper used in food packaging are substantial components of the waste stream. For example, 75 percent of the packaging for bottled water produced in the United States ends up in landfills and waterways. As a result, about two million tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) enters landfills on an annual basis.

The Healthy Food in Health Care Program is a national initiative of Health Care Without Harm, which works with hospitals across the country to help improve the health and sustainability of their food services.

For more information about the Healthy Food in Health Care Program, and to access a variety of tools and resources, visit

PET takes thousands of years to biodegrade. As it breaks down, it leaches contaminants, including a variety of chemical substances that mimic the hormone estrogen, into groundwater supplies. One potential source of this estrogenic activity is antimony, which is used as a catalyst in the production of PET.Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in the lining of most hard plastic bottles, also has been shown to have estrogenic and other toxic properties. Animal tests reveal that BPA has a variety of adverse health effects, even at low levels of exposure, that include developmental disorders and increased risks of both prostate and breast cancer.

Ironically, bottled water takes six times as much water to produce as what actually ends up inside each bottle, threatening local stream and groundwater levels. Furthermore, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch, almost half of all bottled water comes from municipal supplies of tap water, making it virtually equivalent to drinking water from the tap!

Bottled Water

Reducing bottled water in your hospital can save your facility thousands of dollars. For Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, California, the phaseout of single-use bottled water for on-site catering events, in-patient areas, and nursing units represents a savings of $66,000 annually. Santa Rosa next plans to phase out bottled water in its cafeterias in favor of selling reusable plastic mugs with the hospital logo and offering filtered water stations.

Tips for Reducing Food Waste in Health Care

Several large facilities in the country are taking steps to reduce their waste output. Grocery chains such as Publix and Wegmans, for example, are looking into composting or donating their excess food. Furthermore, states like Massachusetts are proposing bans on food waste disposals by large institutions like hospitals and universities.

Given such impending legislation as well as the cost savings and environmental impact that can come from reducing food waste, it is imperative for the health care sector to decrease the amount of food going to landfills. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Promote drinking tap water by distributing reusable water bottles through on-site stores or giveaways and providing filtered drinking water stations.
  • Provide room service-style choices for patients at mealtimes so they can pick meals they want to eat. This has the double benefit of reducing waste and saving money.
  • Establish a compost program to divert food scraps from landfills, by either partnering with a municipal compost program or creating an on-site composting system.
  • Support recycling of paper, plastic, and glass throughout your facility.
  • Purchase wisely. Work with food distributors and retailers to prioritize the purchasing of food options in bulk, without plastic packaging or with recyclable packaging.

Case Study: Composting at Oregon Health & Science University

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) is a teaching hospital with approximately 575 beds. It serves an average of 1,000 patient meals and 7,000 retail meals per day. In 2005, OHSU set up a composting system and now diverts four tons of food waste from landfills each week.

OHSU composts food scraps from its cafeteria, kitchen, and patients, as well as food-soiled, biodegradable serverware with a Somat Super 60 Pulper. The pulper grinds and deposits the waste into carts provided by the city of Portland’s composting program, and the city’s waste management service collects it twice a week. The waste is then sent to Cedar Grove Composting in neighboring Washington, where the compost is processed and sold throughout the region.

OHSU’s remodeling of its Food and Nutrition Department prompted the investment in composting. Although the pulper did have start-up costs, and composting requires a 1.4 FTE,OHSU is ultimately saving on garbage hauling costs and sewage discharge fees; in addition, OHSU has found that maintenance of the system is comparable in price to maintenance of a traditional disposal system.

Regional Healthy Food in Health Care Happenings

Healthy Food in Health Care National Webinar Series

November 8, 3 pm EST

Theme: Balanced Menus and Reducing Meat Offerings

For more information, go to

Stay tuned for more information about our Food Matters event at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) meeting this year on October 21-23 in New Orleans. Food Matters is one of Healthy Food in Health Care’s clinical education and advocacy projects, and aims to inform clinicians on a broad range of food and health issues. Details will be available on our website: