Around 10 million tonnes of food is wasted each year in the UK, costing the country a huge £18bn. And the healthcare sector contributes nearly £230m-worth of waste to this, making it a significant player in today’s wasteful society.
Given the national coverage, and the sizes and locations of hospitals, it seems an almost impossible task to calculate a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling the NHS’s food waste problem. So what can be done to manage its food waste and how can the healthcare sector make a big enough change?
According to WRAP, food waste costs the healthcare sector £1,900 a tonne. This is composed of procurement costs (52%); labour to prepare and serve it (37%); utilities to cook/ refrigerate it (7.5%); and disposal (3.5%). When we throw food away, we throw all of those procurement, labour and utility costs away with it. By contrast, food disposal costs can be as low as £20-£30 a tonne, so the big issue is not disposal costs but all the front-end costs that are too often ignored.
Such a build-up of uneaten food not only becomes wasted produce but it can also cause a variety of long-term, costly issues for trusts by causing problems with blocked drains because some trusts still use maceration. If the NHS targeted the issue at source then less money would be spent on food to start with and it would limit the amount that is being thrown away.
Spotting this awareness gap within the healthcare sector, the team at SWRnewstar became involved with the NHS Sustainability Campaign. It has been created to promote best practice and help the NHS to reduce carbon emissions. It comprises four key activity streams: day of action, the Sustainability Impact report, NHS Sustainability Awards and regional roadshows. SWRnewstar has taken an active role in presenting at these roadshows as well as sponsoring the awards and supporting day of action activities across 400 sites.
Building awareness is key to the campaign, which then leads to behaviour change across the NHS. We have been working hard to supply comprehensive insight to the trusts we work with into the waste they are producing and how to manage it. But the real target goes beyond raising awareness and is about increasing reuse and recycling rates to optimise each trust’s waste management, as well as identifying areas where waste can be reduced.
The true cost of food waste is often missed. It is hidden in a bin or washed down the sink, so many organisations are failing to recognise the scale of the problem. When procuring waste services, procurement teams focus on a crude metric of purchasing the cheapest ‘price-per-lift’ for disposal, instead of looking at the value of what is actually in the bin and asking waste companies to help them reduce waste.
Shockingly, up to 55% of healthcare’s food waste is disposed of as general waste, which is costing the sector £107 per tonne. By tweaking processes and adopting better segregation, not only can trusts identify ways to reduce waste, but they can have a direct impact on improving sustainability and the environment.
All NHS sites that SWRnewstar is involved with have their waste monitored, measured and analysed. On-site teams can then understand the volumes of material and the associated costs. Once staff are aware of how much food waste is being produced, it is far easier to encourage the use of effective waste management, and educate teams on appropriate segregation, food waste collections and accurate disposal of food waste for anaerobic digestion.
Such change in behaviour empowers staff to take back ownership of resources, identify trouble spots and understand how to avoid them.
The real opportunity comes from focusing on the processes that lead to waste being generated, starting with procurement. If the NHS can minimise those, then it will go a long way to reducing the waste it is producing and save a significant amount of money at a time when budgets are being squeezed.
Encouraging collaborative working and enabling staff to take responsibility for the waste being produced is important. The NHS has a real opportunity to save money, improve sustainability and meet future legislation by reducing the volumes of uneaten food in hospitals. Behavioural changes like this are a step forward to ensuring the NHS not only thrives past its 70th birthday, but also remains sustainable well into the future.
Stephen Cameron is business development director at SWRnewstar