At St. John Medical Center, a Tulsa, OK-based 600-bed acute care hospital, a program to reduce the use of foam disposables is generating $120,000 a year in savings for its food and nutrition services department while also reducing foodservice retail trash volume by close to 75 percent.
“Over the past five years St. John’s, like most acute care institutions, has put a lot of emphasis on cost containment,” says Janet Potts, FSD for the organization. “In 2008, the hospital embraced the Sustainability Initiative of the Catholic Health Association, and formed a hospital-wide Green Team charged with evaluating, implementing and maintaining green practices in the workplace," she adds. "Our department put a major thrust behind supporting the larger program.”
With the charge to "reduce, reuse and recycle," the Medical Center as a whole has become silver-free and mercury-free and 100 percent digital in terms of imaging (meaning no chemicals are used any longer in processing). It also implemented a widespread recycling program for paper, batteries, electronics, printer ink/toner cartridges and similar waste; in 2011 it recycled over 35,000 lbs. of cardboard, 141,000 lbs. of paper and 2,200 lbs. of rechargeable batteries.
“As we looked into how we could support the overall initiative, we automatically began thinking about recycling, but ended up putting a much larger focus on reducing our waste,” says Potts.
“Our use of foam containers was clearly a major opportunity. When we launched the program in the spring of 2009, we were using about 15 cases of three-compartment containers a day at an annual cost of more than $90,000. A purchasing analysis showed that was our number two spend item! These items also represented the largest proportion of the our retail trash volume."
An emphasis on education
The department’s green initiative was headed up by nutrition services manager Linda Branch. The team felt it could reduce foam container use by 50 percent with a program emphasizing environmental education and with policy changes that included modest service charges for the use of these products in lieu of china. Specific changes included:
✓ a non-discounted 25¢ charge for large hinged foam containers and a 15¢ charge for small ones; foam cups are also charged for if taken without a purchase;
✓ removal of hinged containers from frequently accessed areas
✓ publicized recommendations that customers bring their own coffee cups and that, when a disposable container option is necessary, customers use a single foam plate covered by an unfolded napkin or a square of parchment paper nutrition services can provide;
✓ a 10¢ discount on cold beverages purchased for approved re-usable mugs and bottles;
✓ signage and table tents explaining the policies and why they were being implemented;
✓ educational efforts to encourage prompt return of china, trays and flatware;
✓ monthly education activities in the café to explain the change, show its impact and report progress.
Interestingly, the department wasn’t looking for an outright ban on foam use.
“That’s because our trash is incinerated in a municipal waste-to-energy facility that prefers foam as opposed to paper when disposables are used because it increases the temperature of the combustion process,” says Potts. “In some ways, explaining why we continue to offer the foam disposable option at all was one of our biggest educational challenges.”
The bottom line
Now in its third year, the foam reduction program continues to bear dividends. Potts says a recent evaluation shows that the foam disposable reductions have remained consistent since the program’s initiation and that the education efforts have encouraged many other hospital departments to arrange for the use and return of china plates for their department staff events.
Potts estimates that the combined income from the foam container service charges and the cash savings from reduced disposable use and trash disposal costs total about $120,000 a year.