With institutional service, what is not eaten is an important part of sustainable practices that contribute to public health. Commercial kitchens create a large amount of waste in preparation, leftovers, and food left on plates; this waste pollutes groundwater, generates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and increases disposal costs. It is not enough to change the food we serve—it is also important to stop filling our landfills with polluting waste from institutional food-service operations. The problem is complex, but the solution is not: eliminate single-use products, close the food loop by composting food waste, and recycle containers and packaging materials.
Switch to reusable food-service products
Single use products such as styrene plates, cups, and utensils are costly and wasteful by nature. Reusable plates, cups, mugs, and utensils pay for themselves in a period of months and then continue to reduce costs every month. By using fewer single-use products, institutions will save money and improve environmental health. Plastic cups and utensils cannot be composted, so it is especially important to make this change before attempting a compost program.
The problem of single-use products is especially problematic when they are made of plastic, especially styrene and Styrofoam. These products are used in high volumes—an estimated 25 billion Styrofoam cups are discarded each year—and the environmental and health impacts are enormous. A 1986 EPA report named polystyrene manufacturing as the fifth-largest creator of hazardous waste. In addition, styrene and Styrofoam products are often discarded as litter, and it is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems, and it is a significant ingredient in the ‘great pacific garbage patch’, a gyre—now twice as big as the state of Texas—of toxic plastic refuse that has been reduced to small particles and enters the food chain after it is consumed by marine animals.
Workers where styrene and Styrofoam are manufactured often suffer acute health problems. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Chronic exposure reportedly affects the central nervous system and can cause disrupt kidney function and blood chemistry. When used in food service, trace quantities of the toxic components can be absorbed into the food, threatening human health and reproductive systems. (The harmful effects are increased when used with hot food and especially when heated in a microwave.)
Ideally, this transition would be made immediately, but it is also possible to phase in the changes over a period of several weeks:
- Switch to bulk dispensers for all condiments and institute a nominal charge for single-use packets.
- Provide reusable mugs and glasses for beverages served in the cafeteria and biodegradable cups at the kiosks; offer a significant discount for customers who supply their own reusable beverage container. (Consider offering ‘branded’ stainless steel mugs and water bottles for sale.)
- Eliminate single-use plates, to-go containers, and utensils; in the cafeteria, replace with reusable items (including reusable to-go containers); in the kiosks, use biodegradable plates, cups, and utensils.
Compost food waste
Most food waste ends up in a landfill, but much of this waste can be composted and used as a natural fertilizer. This compost is rich in nutrients and organic materials and can be used by local farms or in community gardens as a natural, non-toxic fertilizer. Composting food waste renews the natural cycle, restoring nutrients and organic matter to the soil, reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduces pollution from artificial fertilizers, and further reduces the volume of solid waste going to the landfill. (The compost can be used as a non-toxic, organic fertilizer for local farms or community gardens.) Food service operations can utilize commercially-available food pulpers to reduce the volume and weight of food waste by up to 80%. The initial cost is rapidly offset by reducing the amount of waste going to a landfill.
Note: By recommending composting, we do not mean to discourage donation of leftover food to organizations that serve the needy. In fact, we think this is a very important responsibility of all institutions that serve food in our communities. (Donations can be made directly to individual local organizations that serve the needy or, in some cases, to distribution organizations such as Second Harvest Food Bank.) The federal ‘Good Samaritan law’ provides extensive protection to institutions and individuals who donate food to the needy; if restrictive policies prevent food from being shared, they should be changed as soon as possible.
Recycle as much as possible
Recycling drastically reduces the demand for extraction of new resources and for the energy used in manufacturing, so all institutions should be urged to establish an effective recycling program for glass, plastic, cans, corrugated cardboard, and other containers and packing materials—including those used in the kitchen and containers used by patrons. This will, of course, also help reduce the amount of waste produced from food services.
An effective program requires more than a system that allows recycling—the institution must take responsibility for the success of the recycling program and provide a system that is convenient and easy to use, coupled with appropriate education and reinforcement in the importance of recycling.
From the Healthy Food for Healthy Communities report, April 2010. This report outlines the public health implications of the food products from the dominant industrial agriculture system and food service operations in institutions such as hospitals, colleges & universities, and schools.
The report was produced by and is based on research by student interns working with the Alliance, including students from Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Moravian College, and Muhlenberg College.