New Study Disentangles the Healthcare Food Waste Issue

With 6,210 hospitals scattered across the United States, the healthcare system is a larger player in the production of waste. Of this waste, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent is composed of food waste that could be minimized.

Jonathan Pierron, Associate Editor & Content Producer

December 6, 2022

4 Min Read
New Study Disentangles the Healthcare Food Waste Issue

Approximately 1.3 million tons of food are lost or wasted each year globally. One of these food waste streams, though not the most significant offender, is the healthcare system.

When talking about the waste produced within the healthcare system, wasted food often isn’t the topic of discussion, despite most other waste streams already receiving adequate attention.

A majority of waste food in hospitals is disposed of via in-sink disposal processes making it difficult to quantify or measure.

Hospitals represent a majority of the waste created in the healthcare system; generating 71 percent of the total waste produced in the industry, according to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

Of this waste, the study is composed of 10-15 percent food waste, demonstrating a rate lower than the total United States (which approximates 31 percent of the total food supply going to waste annually). However, the amount of food wasted remains significant and worthy of challenging.

A study titled “Hospital Food Waste: Reducing Waste and Cost to our Health Care System and Environment” digs deeper into the issue and potential solutions.

Researched and written by Deborah A. Saber (Ph.D., RN, CCRN-K), Roya Aziza (Ph.D.), Stacia Dreyer (Ph.D.), Deborah Sanford (MBA, MSN, RN), and Hannah Nadeau (BSN, RN), the report spearheads the idea that nurse leaders could play a roll in the policy changes necessary to reduce the waste created in the healthcare system.

The report “highlights the need for nurse leaders to inform policymakers about changes that could positively impact the environment while reducing the waste stream and hospital expenditures” states the abstract.

Research shows that a hospital serving 6,640 patient meals per week can produce as much as 48,0000 lbs. of food a year. This is equivalent to 24 tons of wasted organic material.  These 24 tons of food waste are the direct result of losses during preparation and food that is prepared and goes uneaten or refused by patients.

While not always avoidable, this report suggests much of this can be avoided with appropriately implemented measures.

“A related study reported that just 28 percent of meals ordered were eaten completely and 29 percent were less than half eaten. Thirty-nine percent of the food served to patients was returned to the kitchen as food waste,” the researchers state.

Similar rates are observed in non-solid food waste such as infant formula with studies reporting “that 61 percent of prepared infant formula and 18 percent - 62 percent of enteral formulas can be wasted.”

This food waste is not only a burden to the environment and unnecessary waste to be processed by landfills but also a blow to the budgets set by hospitals, making it beneficial to all parties to inspect this issue deeper.

When looking into interviews held by researchers, they found that budgeting was a primary encourager for hospitals to think strategically about their food waste.

“Participants routinely indicated that budgetary considerations motivated food waste mitigation practices” the study reports.

Siting the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy framework, the study begins to describe solutions to the issue by suggesting more creative use of foods that are “at risk” of going bad.

In the preparation phase, interviewees working in some hospitals noted produce scraps and close-to-expiration foods were discarded, while others from different hospitals described innovative ways to avoid disposing of this food.

The study provides the following examples: “for example, overly ripe strawberries were used to make strawberry shortcake and excess asparagus was blanched and frozen.”

When it comes to food uneaten by patients, hospitals dealt with waste in different ways, though one method was far more common.

Of the seven hospitals interviewed, five disposed of food waste in in-sink disposals, one utilized a food waste bin collected by a compost company, and the last bagged food waste to be incinerated by a third-party contractor.

It is worthy of note that in some cases, sent-back food was not subject to the same disposal method as the majority due to isolation and contagion concerns.

When it comes to hospitals that reported disposal systems different than composting, some reported roadblocks to a system switch.

“Participants reported barriers to compost including cost, procedural considerations (e.g., movement of heavy bins filled with food waste), and hiring and training personnel to manage the food waste process,” the study notes.

In order to achieve a more beneficial and cost-effective means of food waste, the report begins to explain ways nurse leaders can create an impact externally.

“Nurse leaders are ideally positioned to construct and implement policies to improve the health of patients while practicing sustainability efforts" it states.

The report suggests utilizing leading nurses to implement food waste donation programs, pointing to the nurses as people inclined to support health for all.

“One focus could include widespread, developed food donation programs for food insecure populations, which would aim to promote an active and healthy life for this highly vulnerable group,” the study states.

Though many useful strategies can be implemented within the hospitals, not all changes can be made internally.

In order to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers–and other unnamed challenges–policy change is necessary.

“Outside of healthcare institutions, nurse leaders can help drive policy change that will encourage donation, mitigate barriers to food donation, and protect hospitals against litigation," the study notes.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Pierron

Associate Editor & Content Producer

John Pierron is the associate editor of Waste360. He graduated from Ohio University.

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