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November 2021

Why your hospital should worry about proper food waste disposal

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Food Safety and Food Processing, Medical Waste and Waste Disposal

Read our latest blog to find why you should worry about food waste in your hospital or care facility, and how reducing waste and correct disposal can save money and mitigate risk.  

Why your hospital should worry about proper food waste disposal

When it comes to the safe and successful running of a hospital or care home, administrators have a lot on their plates. And their already significant load increased substantially with the additional infection control procedures required to keep patients and staff safe during the pandemic. 

We've written quite a bit here on Insights regarding the safe disposal of medical waste, but today we thought we would shift the lens slightly and look at something that hospitals and care homes produce nearly as much of  -  food waste - but which potentially goes overlooked. 

What is food waste?

Food waste is defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as food that is appropriate for human consumption which is thrown away, including large quantities of wholesome, edible food which is unused, left over, or discarded from kitchens and eating establishments.

In the studies I read, the most common method used to evaluate food waste in hospitals is plate waste, which refers to the percentage of the food served to patients which is left uneaten and then discarded. 

In a cross-sectional study conducted at three hospitals in Italy, the overall food wasted amounted to 41.6%. In a similar study conducted in Portugal in 2015, each patient wasted around 35% of their food per day, and in a later Portuguese study (2020) this had increased to an average of 56% plate waste!

This huge amount of food wastage comes with both an environmental and financial price tag.

Causes of hospital food waste:

In the Italian study, poor food quality, different eating habits, and the feeling of fullness were the main reasons patients gave for food waste. The study concluded by suggesting that the most promising way to reduce food waste in hospitals would be to improve the quality of meals and to establish an individual, simplified, and flexible meal reservation process based on patients' specific needs and preferences. 

In the Portuguese study, there was a correlation between the length of hospital stay and food waste, with waste decreasing over the days of hospitalisation.  

Why the concern over food waste? 

In recent years, food waste has received increasing attention. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted around the globe each year, which amounts to 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption. 
And the statistics for SA are similar. According to the WWF, 10 million tonnes of food go to waste in SA every year. That means a third of the 31 million tonnes of food produced annually in South Africa is never consumed and ends up at rubbish sites. This is in stark contrast to the millions of South Africans that are go hungry every day, and who are forced to pick over rubbish sites to make a living or sustain themselves. On a very macro level, successfully cutting food waste offers the opportunity to potentially turn the tide on the severe food insecurity felt by a significant portion of the South African population.
South African Landfill Waste Disposal
The WWF also estimates that about 90% of waste in SA is disposed to landfill, where the food-waste component leads to the production of methane gas and carbon dioxide (two of the greenhouse gasses directly contributing to climate change), so reducing these would certainly have significant environmental benefits. But that's the really big picture.

Why should hospitals and care homes worry about food waste disposal? 

Whilst improving food security and reducing the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change are extremely admirable long-term goals, I would hazard a guess that most hospital and care home administrators are thinking slightly closer to home and shorter-term - and wondering whether food waste is really something they should add to their already long list of concerns and responsibilities. 
Here at Initial, we believe that sustainability is everyone's responsibility, but over and above that, we'd like to suggest that hospitals and care homes should be thinking seriously about food waste for 2 very practical reasons: cost and risk. Let me elaborate. 

1. Driving down cost: 

With cost pressure on the rise in every industry (and further aggravated by the pandemic) driving down operating costs are at the top of everyone's agenda these days - and hospitals and care homes are no exception. According to Stats SA, using December 2016 as a base, headline inflation has risen by 22.3% over the last five years, and food inflation sits at 23.6% compared to end-2016. That's a big increase to absorb, especially if up to half of the food that your institution is purchasing is being wasted.

Reducing food waste can help hospitals cut their food purchasing budgets by up to 6 percent, according to Practice Greenhealth, a source for environmental solutions for the healthcare sector. The group estimates that food waste accounts for 10 to 15% of an average hospital’s waste.  The bottom line is that reducing food waste can save your institution money. Money that could be more effectively used for diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of patients. 

2. The risks posed by contaminated food waste: 

Reducing food waste to save costs is one angle to which hospital managers and administrators need to give careful thought.  We'd like to argue that the other is the risk posed to the public by contaminated food waste. 

Contaminated food waste is food that has been in contact with patients that have infectious or transmissible diseases, and which could potentially transmit their illnesses to someone else via the food that they discard.

Take the dreaded Ebola, for example.  You can get the virus if you have "direct contact" with a range of bodily fluids from a sick person, including blood, saliva, breast milk, stool, sweat, semen, tears, vomit, and urine. "Direct contact" means these fluids need to get into your broken skin or touch your mucous membranes - including your mouth - which means that you can get Ebola by sharing food with someone who is infectious.

And with hospitals throwing away up to 50% of the food served to patients, there is a high likelihood that at least some of this food waste will have been in contact with patients who are infectious. With the high levels of waste picking in the country, there is a definite risk of waste pickers accessing the contaminated food if this food waste ends up in the municipal waste disposal facilities.  I doubt that any hospital or care home would like to have the start of another infectious outbreak traced back to to food or medical waste from their premises. 

What can hospitals do to mitigate these issues? 

As messy as it can be, analysing food waste is an area that can help hospitals to cut costs and be more sustainable. There are a number of initiatives focussed on ways that hospitals and care homes can implement small but effective methods to reduce food waste, including turning food waste into compost for the community garden across the road, or having food waste collected and dumped into trucks designed to cook the food to kill any pathogens, and then fed to locally raised hogs.

Another strategy for reducing waste could be a Room Service model, which can reduce food waste by about 30%. Patients order off a large, colourful menu, offering a wide variety of meals, including breakfast available all day. When a patient is hungry, they can order what they want to eat between seven in the morning and eight at night. And the food is delivered within 45 minutes.

This highly reduces tray waste because the patients are most likely still in the mood for the food they ordered. It is a win-win. Patients are happy and generate less wasted food, and since most of the food is made from scratch, waste in the kitchen is reduced as well. This ties in with the research findings in the Italian study, mentioned above.

How Initial can help manage your risk?

In addition to providing responsible medical waste disposal services designed to help you manage your medical waste effectively, Initial also offers a service for contaminated food waste. We'll provide you with contaminated food waste disposal units that are reliable, highly durable and fully compliant with the national legislation.

Our commitment to caring for the environment ensures that we actively seek the most responsible method of disposal for any given waste stream, and you will be able to rest assured that any contaminated food waste from your institution is being disposed of responsibly at hazardous landfill, where it cannot pose a risk to the public. Class A landfills are specially designed and engineered for acceptance of hazardous waste and are not accessible for waste picking.

Contact Initial today for more information on how we can help you manage your contaminated food or medical waste risks.

Find out more about Initial Hygiene's Medical waste Disposal Service

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

I joined Rentokil Initial South Africa in 2004 as the PA to the MD, and after 6 months maternity leave I re-joined the Company in 2009 as the Marketing Co-ordinator for Rentokil. I'm now the Marketing Communication Manager for Rentokil Initial. I'm still terrified of cockroaches (Americana's only!) but the rest of the creepy crawlies we deal with don't really bug me (see what I did there?), so I guess I'm in the right industry! I am passionate about what we do here at Rentokil Initial and also write for our Hygiene Blog, which can be found at blog.initial.co.za, and our Ambius blog - https://www.ambius.co.za/blog. Life outside of Rentokil Initial mostly revolves around my daughter, who has just turned twelve, and my husband (who is a bit older). I love living in Cape Town and wouldn't trade living here for anywhere else in the world.

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