Warding off food waste in the health sector

Philip Simpson explores the implications of wasting food, as well as how embracing recycling can drive significant cost and sustainability benefits for the health sector

According to the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the UK health sector generates almost 121,000 tonnes of food waste every year, costing an estimated £230m*.

UK hospitals and healthcare bodies serve more than one million meals every year.

With only 7% of uneaten food reportedly recycled, and most thrown straight into general waste, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the sector is one of the biggest contributors to our national food waste conundrum.

With the average cost of avoidable food waste running at 22p for every meal served in the healthcare industry*, it’s crucial that the sector works to eliminate this expense, particularly in light of well publicised budgetary constraints.

A poor prognosis

Statistics from WRAP tell us that 45% of healthcare food waste comes from preparation, 21% from spoilage and 34% from customer plates – of this, it’s estimated that 80% is completely avoidable.

There are a common number of factors explaining why such a large amount of food goes to waste in the healthcare sector.

These can range from inefficient operational processes and over-ordering, to unpopular meal choices and limited options for re-using unserved food.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the most commonly wasted food is fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables. Alongside often being unwanted menu option, perishability poses an additional challenge.

Understanding these factors – such as patient preference – and implementing processes to tackle them head-on is the first step in combating food waste.

The first steps in treatment

Menu planning, stock control and staff training are all good first steps in combating the problem of food waste.

With a generally accepted (but not necessarily deserved) reputation for poor quality food and fussy patients, staff should keep an eye on popular and unpopular meal choices. This way, they can ensure that they’re giving patients a balanced diet, while minimising waste.

In addition, by streamlining the ordering process, hospitals and health organisations can not only cut down on the amount of food waste they generate, but also save money by not purchasing unnecessary stock.

Staff should also be trained to make them aware of what they can do to help reduce food waste.

For example, WRAP recommends ‘chef masterclasses’ to discuss the problem of avoidable waste in the kitchen and how best it can be minimised.

A cheaper, greener remedy

Continuing to send food waste to landfill is clearly not a viable long-term solution – neither for the healthcare sector nor for the environment.

According to current estimates, the UK will reach landfill capacity within just two years unless we find an alternative solution.

With calls growing for the government to enforce a total ban on sending food waste to landfill, the sector should look to move ahead of the trend and seek to pioneer more sustainable process – such as food waste recycling.

ReFood works with healthcare bodies nationwide, helping them to embrace a more sustainable solution.

Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust (RDaSH), for example, partnered with ReFood in order to eliminate a process known as maceration (this involves chopping the food up and then flushing it down the drain).

Not only are recycling rates dramatically increasing and macerators being completely phased out, but the Trust has also made considerable financial savings.

Working with the Trust, ReFood collects and processes food waste, harnessing natural degradation to capture biogas and generate renewable energy as a result.

By recycling food waste rather than sending it to landfill, the healthcare sector acts as a good example of best practice, both in terms of saving money and demonstrating a genuine commitment to sustainability.

Although we’re seeing encouraging signs within the sector to tackle its food waste output, there is still work to be done.

Over the coming years, I’d like to see more hospital and healthcare bodies throughout the UK embrace food recycling.

By making small but significant changes, the sector can lead the way in the fight against food waste.

Philip Simpson is commercial director at ReFood.

* http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Healthcare.pdf  

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