2012 Environmental Study: More operators converting cooking oil to biofuel

Recycling and waste reduction top list.

Almost all respondents to our fourth Environmental Study (92%) have implemented some kind of environmentally friendly program. Converting used cooking oil to biofuel saw the largest jump in practice from last year’s survey. For those operators who haven’t started sustainability measures, cost, convenience and administrative support were listed as the reasons. More than a third—37%—said they don’t promote their environmental efforts, an eight-percentage-point increase from last year’s study. Following are the results of our study.

Garden’s bounty

Next year, Watertown Regional Medical Center in Wisconsin will overhaul its dining program, with moves to patient room service and scratch cooking. In anticipation of that, the department is making other changes, such as producing all soups in house. One big switch has been the addition of an 11,000-square-foot campus garden, which Justin Johnson, executive chef, calls the centerpiece of the department’s face-lift. “We wanted to source more locally and we knew food safety was an issue because we have to buy from an approved vendor,” he says. “Why not skip the middle man and grow for ourselves?” Johnson is currently getting around 75% of his produce from the garden. Johnson hopes the next progression will be a greenhouse to extend the growing season into winter.

 

Eliminating bottled beverages

Many non-commercial operations are cutting bottled beverages in an effort to reduce waste. Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Ariz., recently joined others in the National Parks Service, including Grand Canyon National Park, to stop selling bottled water and soda. The park says that, while it is currently recycling these products, eliminating them completely would reduce up to 40% of what is currently being recycled, or about 15% of the park’s total waste stream. The park is installing water bottle filling stations for thirsty visitors.

Local connection

“I’m in the breadbasket of the Central Valley,” says Scott Soiseth, child nutrition director for Turlock Unified School District in California. “We have a lot of small farms nearby. We just couldn’t get connected with them. The farmers didn’t know how to sell to us, and I didn’t have the time to work it out. We needed that third party.”

The third party is Ag Link, a web-based service that connects farmers with school districts. For a 4% administrative fee, Soiseth can browse the produce of nearby farms, which also pay a 4% fee. Farmers update the site with price information and photos of the available items, and with the click of a mouse Soiseth can purchase whatever produce he wants. All billing is done through Ag Link, which also handles food safety and GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) training. Soiseth says he’s currently purchasing 30% of his produce locally, but through Ag Link’s services he expects that to increase to nearly 70%.

Oil to biodiesel

The dining services department at the University of North Texas has been recycling its used cooking oil for some time, but dining services wanted to “make the oil into something that could become a reusable resource,” according to Ken Botts, special projects manager. This semester a local company began picking up used cooking oil and converting it to biodiesel. The oil was previously being used to make items like makeup. Another change was made in the collection process. Previously, Botts says, employees would dump the used oil in a bucket and a company would pick it up. Now, it’s a closed system with no chance for spillage. The grease is collected from the fryer using a vacuum hose. From there the grease is stored in a container until the company collects the grease via vacuum hose.

Schools tackle trash

“My first year the biggest complaint from parents wasn’t the quality of food or how long kids waited in line. It was that we were serving kids on Styrofoam trays,” says Ron Adams, foodservice director for 7,000-student Portland Public Schools in Maine. It took three years, but Adams has dumped the foam trays for a paperboard tray that can be recycled. Adams didn’t want to just eliminate the trays. He wanted to address the entire waste issue. A composting program was implemented at three schools last year, with more coming on board this year. The district has diverted 48 tons of food waste to be composted. Trash pick-ups for the district have been cut in half.

Food donation

The University of Colorado at Boulder has a comprehensive sustainability program, including recycling and composting. Its newest initiative is donating leftover food to homeless shelters. A pilot program was started this summer in which dining services staff freeze leftover food according to food safety guidelines. That food is given to homeless shelters. The department also donates leftover grab-and-go items such as sandwiches to another organization that distributes the meals to area shelters.