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Rob Lester, director of food and nutrition services for Ocala Health in Florida, knows he has a responsibility not only to serve quality nutritious food inside the hospital but also to improve the community he serves. With that in mind, Lester, along with the system’s green committee—of which Lester is the chair—started several green initiatives to reduce waste in the system’s two hospitals, 200-bed Ocala Regional Medical Center and 70-bed West Marion Community Hospital.

Lester and the committee’s goals were to reduce non-biodegradable waste in the cafeteria by 50% and start a recycling program that would reduce overall hospital waste by at least 10% each month. Both of those goals were achieved in the first few months following the programs’ implementation. Lester was so successful in his efforts to decrease disposables entering the landfill and increasing recycling that, in January, the system was awarded the Walt Driggers Environmentalist of the Year Award from the Ocala Chamber of Commerce. The award is given to a group or individual who contributes to the protection and preservation of the environment in Marion County.

“We realized that being a large multisite hospital in town caused us to be one of the largest producers of waste,” Lester wrote in the system’s nomination for the award. “We felt strongly that taking care of the community meant more than just caring for the people but also caring for our beautiful environment.”

Getting started: Lester says a major wake-up call came after he looked at year-end reports that showed just how many disposable products the hospitals were using. Lester found that in 2007 the two hospitals contributed 2 million pieces of disposable products into the local landfill. He decided that the foodservice department would make changes to reduce that number. So on Earth Day 2008, the only disposable products used in the two cafés were biodegradable. China and stainless steel cutlery was also brought in for the day to reduce the amount of disposable products needed.

Lester sent out an e-mail to all the hospitals’ employees informing them of the changes to be made that day. “I couldn’t believe the response. It just floored me,” Lester says. “Everyone was saying how great it was and that we needed to continue this. I realized it was a hot topic nationally, but the outcry from the staff here was amazing.”

So Lester approached the COO to find out if he could expand on what the department had done on Earth Day. Lester was given the go-ahead as long as he kept costs down.

“The sad thing about most of these biodegradable products is that they are three times as expensive,” Lester says. Because of the cost differential, Lester knew he had to significantly reduce the amount of disposable products used in the cafeterias. He brought in china and stainless steel cutlery, which the department already had in stock because the products are used for patient service. “Since our dishwashing soap is already biodegradable, we felt washing a few extra dishes each day would not make much of an impact,” Lester says.

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