Operations

2009 Environmental Survey: Paler shade of green

FoodService Director's first Environmental Study find out how operators are tackling sustainability.

We all know that non-commercial foodservice operators are concerned about the environment. But exactly how much are operators doing to make their facilities environmentally friendly, and in which areas are they concentrating their efforts? FSD attempts to answer these questions with its first reader survey on the topic.

The popular adage about the weather is, everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. That is hardly true about environmental issues, but according to the results of our first environmental survey, virtually everyone knows they have to do something, but most aren’t doing enough.

We took a cross-section of operators in every segment of the non-commercial marketplace and asked them what they do to make their operations more environmentally friendly. Of the operators surveyed, 94% participate in some form of environmental program, but the types of actions vary widely.

The most common environmental practice, by far, is recycling, with 76% of operators managing a recycling program. Taking steps to reduce waste is the second most common practice, with 55% of operators doing this. Forty-two percent said they collect cooking oil for conversion to biofuel, and 34% buy local, sustainable and/or organic foods. Finally, 25% said they have stopped using disposables in their operations, 23% have installed water-flow restrictors and 13% compost organic waste.

Who has the time?: Among those operators who said they have not undertaken any environmental programs, the most commonly cited reasons were cost, the time and labor involved, lack of space to store items for recycling and a lack of companies to aid in efforts such as recycling and composting.

When it comes to recycling, paper and plastic dominate the non-waste stream, with 87% of operators saying they recycle paper and 71% recycling plastic. Metal is recycled by 61% of operators, glass by 53% and polystyrene by 14%.

Although environmentally friendly disposables such as compostable serviceware have become more widely available in recent years, the majority of operators surveyed—60%—still don’t offer them in their cafeterias and dining rooms. Of those who don’t, the main reason given is cost, with 72% of respondents citing this. Twenty-five percent said there are no convenient places to take such items for recycling or composting and 17% said customers aren’t asking them to make such items available. Finally, 8% said such products aren’t available in their areas, and 3% said they don’t feel it’s necessary and/or customers don’t participate in such programs.

Despite the higher cost of environmentally friendly disposables, those who do use them seldom pass on the cost to customers. Only 12% of operators who make such items available said they charge a premium to customers who use them.

Marketing environmental efforts is definitely not a priority for many operators, as 46% of respondents said they do not promote their “green” practices. Of those who do, posters, hand-outs and other printed materials are used by 48% of operators. Thirty-one percent said they post information on their Web sites, and 15% said they have used special events such as contests and giveaways to call attention to their environmental efforts.

Me, personally?: When it comes to the environmental problems facing our planet, opinions vary widely on what is the biggest challenge. For 34% of operators, waste is the most serious problem, while 28% said global warming is our biggest threat. Pollution was a major concern for 26% of respondents, with 17% specifying water pollution and 9% citing air pollution. Other serious challenges included loss of the ozone layer, animal extinction and acid rain.

Whatever their corporate or institutional policies, virtually every operator said they personally take steps to try and make a positive impact on the environment. Eighty-six percent said they do recycling at home, 85% said they try to conserve energy and 69% said they try to conserve water. Driving less was cited by 47% of respondents, buying “green” products by 34%, driving more fuel-efficient vehicles by 32% and buying local/sustainable/organic products by 30%.

Read on for case studies of a university and a hospital system striving to make a positive environmental statement in their institutions and their communities.

Gearing Up Green

A compost program paired with trayless dining and biodegradables is raising UC-Riverside’s environmental profile.

At 18,000-student University of California, Riverside, a new compost waste management program, along with trayless dining and a switch to biodegradable disposals have put the university well on its way to catching up with the state’s mandates for becoming a zero-waste campus. Gustavo Plascencia, general manager of residential dining, says that last June the university came up short on a statewide university goal to divert at least 50% of its waste from the landfill, but a new partnership with a waste management company (Athens Services) will help put them over the mark.

“The state set goals for all UC universities that said they should achieve 50% waste diversion by June of 2008, 75% by June 2012 and zero waste by 2020,” Plascencia says. “So each campus was instructed to look at their operations and come up with a plan to meet these diversion goals. We did not achieve the 50% that we should have last June. We were actually at 42%. So a campus committee has been looking at implementing a new recycling program to help us reach those diversion goals, and last month we hired a waste management company. Athens has helped other UC campuses reach an 87% diversion rate, so they’re already beyond the 75% for 2012. The campus has always looked at food waste as a big part of our landfill waste so if we divert that it will put us over 50% right away.”

The agreement was signed in mid-March, and Plascencia says the department hopes to have the program fully in place by July 1. Currently, Dining Services is working on a plan for how the collection will be done to be most cost-effective.

“We’re going to have some green containers in the kitchen so the staff will put only food waste in those,” Plascencia says. “Once those fill up, they’ll roll them out to the loading dock to a container for only food waste and the goal is to empty those containers daily. Right now we are trying to analyze what it’s going to cost if we have a daily pick-up from Athens, which would get really expensive. So we’re thinking of building a transfer station on campus where we can have a larger container where our own employees can take the food waste from each loading dock. From there, Athens could pick up the larger container and it would be a much lower cost. Athens will then compost the material for us and make it available to use for campus landscaping as well as for use in a new student community garden.”

Compostable disposables: Once the compost program is up and running, the campus’s earlier switch to biodegradable and compostable disposables will start having an effect on the college’s waste diversion rates. Dining Services began the switch in the fall of 2006.

“We basically had a meeting with our paper supplier and we asked them to take a look at all the items that we buy from them and asked them to find sustainable alternatives,” Plascencia says. “Thankfully, they came up with a lot of products that are compostable. We now use fiberboard plates and hinged containers, and we recently switched to sugar cane utensils from potato-based since they tend to hold better. By total purchases, 45 cents of every dollar goes to these products. When we first switched, the costs were projected to increase by about $16,000 over purchases of $320,000, so it was good that our housing director was OK with that knowing it was the right thing to do. But we’re actually spending more than that now because we opened new facilities.”

Because Riverside lacked a compostable program, the containers have been going directly to the landfill. Plascencia says the department is planning to add the disposable containers to the compost pile once the Athens program is in place.

“Once our composting program gets going, the food waste and these containers can be composted together,” Plascencia says. “In the residential dining facilities, we usually use china and glassware, but occasionally we’ll use paper products for special events. In the retail locations, it’s more difficult because the students don’t stay and eat in those locations so the ultimate goal is to have the collection containers all over campus.”

Taking to trayless: Another important step in achieving the waste diversion goals was trayless dining, which the university fully implemented at the beginning of the current school year.

“We eliminated trays starting last summer during conferences to see how students would react,” Plascencia says. “The only complaints we heard were from returning students and staff. So we decided to go completely trayless in the fall and we’ve received no complaints. In 2003 we measured the food waste for one week at our two residential dining halls and found that students were throwing away about 1,000 pounds per day at both locations. After going trayless, the daily average for each dining hall was 800 pounds.”

The department has also reduced waste by moving the napkin dispensers to each table, which tends to make the students take fewer napkins.

“When we had them with the trays, they’d grab up to seven and then they’d use four and the rest would end up in the trash,” Plascencia says. “Now that the napkins are at the tables, the students are only using the two or three that they need.”

Taking on Trash

Health system reduces environmental footprint by recycling, purchasing biodegradable products.

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.

When Lester compared the data for the first quarter of 2008, before the environmental changes had been made, and the first quarter of 2009, he found that his total disposable purchases were down 62%. His costs, however, have remained the same as before the changes because of the higher price of biodegradable products. Lester has also maintained the goal of keeping non-biodegradable waste down in the cafeteria. For the first quarter of 2009, the department is averaging 50% of cafeteria disposables being biodegradable or recyclable.

“We trained our staff to ask a customer if they are eating in or taking out,” Lester says. “If they are eating in, we highly encourage people to use the china plates and stainless steel cutlery. Ninety percent of my customers are the hospital staff. Since everyone was so into it, it really cut down on the amount of Styrofoam and plastic that we bought.”

Another product Lester reduced the use of was polystyrene cups. He purchased reusable 20-ounce cups that the staff could buy to use for their personal drinks. Lester sells the cups at cost and offers a discount on beverages to customers who use the reusable cup. Lester sold out of the first 1,000 cups and has since purchased an additional 500. Although he says the reusable cups have been successful—foam cup purchases have dropped 35%—he adds that foam cups are still the department’s nemesis in their environmental efforts.

Recycling: Following the success of the cafeteria program, Lester and the green committee started a recycling component. “I know that typically a lot of foodservice directors don’t deal with garbage, but I thought that since I started the program I would just go ahead and get involved in that too,” he says.

The foodservice department is recycling cardboard, aluminum cans, plastic and paper. Lester says that the surprising element of the recycling program has been the interest from other hospital departments, especially the operating room. “They are pretty closed off and we stay out of there because we’re food people, but we found out they go through a tremendous amount of plastic in their procedures,” Lester says. “The thrown away plastic used to be 15,000 pounds a month and that has been reduced to 7,000 pounds a month since we started recycling.” So far the operating department has saved more than $900 a month with its recycling efforts.

According to a report from Waste Management, after three months of recycling, the system had reduced overall waste by more than 11%.

Lester says that another unexpected result of the recycling program was staff involvement. “The funny thing is this has been a really big morale thing,” he says. “The staff can kind of take their minds off of everything in a stressful business throughout the hospital. For example, pharmacy is really excited for some reason. They are really into it.”
 

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