California has long been a known leader in the war against waste of all kinds, from energy to water and, of course, food.
But not all areas of the country have high-level waste haulers and government bodies dedicated to getting as close to zero waste as possible. Still, the foodservice industry can learn much from the leaders on the West Coast, and from one in particular: University of California San Francisco Health.
A regular foodservice innovation presenter, Dan Henroid, director of nutrition and food services and sustainability officer for UCSF Health, has also pressed for changes in infrastructure that can help operators improve their waste management. UCSF has its eye on meeting the state's goal toward zero waste by 2020.
It's a challenging goal, Henroid acknowledges. He admits that his facility has a few advantages others around the country don't: plenty of cultural support for waste reduction, adequate funding, and a city that supports high levels of composting, recycling and food donation. Regardless of outside advantages, Henroid points to five important infrastructure requirements that serve as guideposts to getting closer to any waste management goal, whether that's a 20 percent reduction, 50 percent or more.
No. 1: Know Your Trash
"The most important thing to changing behavior is education," Henroid says.
Enlightenment regarding exactly how much food waste a facility produces marks the first step toward creating a cultural shift among an organization. Fortunately, these days, foodservice operators can leverage an array of tools to measure, track and analyze waste.
At the very basic level, there's always dumpster diving. "Nothing compares to simply taking a look at what you're sending to the landfill," Henroid says.
Some waste haulers — and not just in California — offer auditing services and other feedback to help operators know what's in their trash. But sometimes, it's just a matter of reaching out. "We work with our waste hauler directly to let us know how much contamination there is in our recycling and composting streams," Henroid says.
Investing in waste tracking technology represents the next step toward acquiring tangible metrics and better feedback about an operation's waste. These products help determine how much — and what — food operations overproduce and subsequently send to the landfill.
No. 2: Educate, Educate, Educate
While many consumers in the Bay Area regularly compost and recycle, UCSF and especially the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, often host visitors from less compost-friendly parts of the country.
As such, Henroid makes it his mission to constantly improve signage above and around the waste bins to teach consumers what goes where. That's a huge challenge for many operators nationwide trying to invest in post-consumer composting. "We just finished a relaunch of our signage and it's very loud and proud with a ton of very clear pictures," says Henroid, who also ensures color-coding on the bins match the enlarged signs.
Henroid's team makes sorting, tracking and behind-the-scenes composting and recycling part of everyone's job. While many noncommercial operators have gone trayless, one UCSF Health facility continues to use trays. The reason? So that customers can bring their trays to the staff, who then sort the trash for them.
Additionally, training the dish crew to rinse out containers before putting them in recycling bins has just become part of UCSF's standard operating procedure. "Most of this is second-nature for everyone, but we will have the conversation if we see this isn't happening properly," Henroid says.
Beyond these steps, it's all about "boots-on-the-ground education," Henroid says. That means communicating waste reduction goals with key stakeholders and conducting mini sessions with the housekeeping, patient care and foodservice teams on what is recyclable versus compostable.
No. 3: Focus on Packaging
Recently, Henroid's team discovered most of the compostable disposables offered at the salad bar were ending up in the recycling bins, rather than in the compost bins where they belong. The reason, they determined, was the packaging: The containers looked like plastic, so consumers thought they should recycle them. "We're working with our packaging manufacturer now to apply embossing or a more visual indicator on the packaging that it is certified compostable," Henroid says.
Sure, not all operators possess the purchasing power and scale to manifest those changes, but selecting packaging with clear symbols for recycling versus composting can help consumers make the right decision on the correct bin to toss containers. Operators can, however, take other steps to tackle this issue; namely, work with food and equipment suppliers to take back and recycle the cardboard and other containers used to ship the product.
Henroid also tries to buy more bulk containers to cut down on packaging waste. For example, he has switched from buying individually packaged condiments to offering things like salad dressings, soy sauce, hot sauce, ketchup and mustard in large pumps at the salad bar and other self-serve stations.
In some cases, going back to the waste hauler can help. In UCSF's case, Henroid found out the operation's waste hauler had begun to accept specific food containers in its recycling stream, so there has been more focus on switching to products in that type of packaging. "Waste sorting stations have evolved over time, so some things that once could only go to the landfill are now becoming recyclable and compostable," Henroid says.
No. 4: Find the Low-Hanging Fruit
Going trayless and cutting out the all-you-care-to-eat setup was an easy first step in cutting down on UCSF's food waste.
Henroid admits one might chuckle to hear this, but straws represent his latest conquest. With three campuses and multiple foodservice and patient feeding outlets, he estimates UCSF wastes about 700,000 straws a year. That's a lot of plastic.
Since some compostable straws don't hold up well to heat, UCSF sticks with the classic plastic straws. Instead of changing the product, Henroid's straw-waste-reduction effort follows a basic operational route. He trains the staff to carry straws around with them and to offer patients straws only when requested or required for medical needs.
No. 5: Think Outside the Box
More chefs now focus on turning scraps and other post-consumer compost into real food in a modern-day trash-cooking method made famous by the likes of Blue Hill chef Dan Barber and others.
In UCSF's case, having a large catering program offers opportunities for students living on campus, among others, to take extra meals and food off its hands. "Colleges and universities are seeing documented incidents of food-insecure students," says Henroid. "We have a very strong food safety program, so we are able to offer extra prepared foods to our students within a 30-minute window."
By maintaining strict protocol for time and temperature control, UCSF can offer these extra meals to students because they still fall within the four-hour food-safety period. The hospital even developed an app students can use to see what food is available, where and when. It's a win-win for both sides; cash-strapped students get free meals, and the university can cut down that much more on what it sends to waste or compost.
When closing in on the four-hour window, staff blast-chill any leftovers and a local food recovery bank picks them up for food-insecure San Francisco residents.
As always, follow-up can prove to be an eye-opener, Henroid points out. "We were donating a ton of oatmeal to three outlets, and when I visited them I found out that they didn't really want any of it," he says. "You also have to be mindful of where the donated food is going."
Community-wide infrastructure issues such as a lack of composting, little funding or limited waste hauling services might make it more of a challenge to tackle all the above steps toward a zero-waste goal. But, aiming for just one of these steps can help operators begin the process of building their own infrastructure for better waste management, within their four walls or campus borders.