California: University of California-SF Medical Center

San Francisco, CA

The University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center is one of the first hospitals to use compostable food service ware and ensure it gets composted. They have the unique advantage of regular city-mandated pick-up of organics and a polystyrene ban to eliminate the use of common disposable food service ware. Since their staff does most of the sorting of materials, they have very low contamination in all of their discard streams. Although composting has increasingly become built into the culture of San Francisco, the staff has tremendous pride in separating for composting.

Products and Brands Composted: 

They use reusable items for patients but in the medical center cafeteria, they use compostable ware, such as:

  • Huhtamaki: Paperboard Container
  • EcoProducts: Bagasse 3-Compartment Clamshell, Bagasse Clamshells, Paper/PLA Container, PLA Cups
  • R3: Molded Wheat Fiber Bowls, Molded Fiber Plates
  • Biogroup USA: Compostable bag liners
  • Solo Cup: Paper Cups

Collection System: 

Tray ReturnTray ReturnThe cafeteria is equipped with a tray return conveyor belt. The staff on the receiving end of the return separates the items remaining on the trays into compost (green), recycling (blue), and landfill (black) bins. The majority of items that go to the landfill include chip and snack bags. By getting rid of condiment packets and having condiment pumps with waxed paper cups instead, they have diverted even more items towards composting from landfill. The trays of food that comes from the patients’ rooms also get sorted by the staff into the three bins and they dewater leftover soup by hand using a strainer before adding it to the compost bin since they got rid of their garbage disposal.

Compostables are collected 6 times a week, which makes a compactor an unnecessary expense. They simply fill their 7-yard container with about 8 tons of compostables per month.

Compost Process: 

Recology hauls their organic material to their compost facility, Jepson Prairie Organics, located east of Vacaville, CA. The compostable material is mixed with thermophilic bacteria and processed for 60 days. Because UCSF Medical Center sorts all discards back-of-house, there is very low contamination in their loads.  

Size of Operation: 

Three bins for sortingThree bins for sortingThe Medical Center feeds 500 patients three times a day in their 15 floor two-building facility. There are 500 trays of food that need to be scraped and sorted, cleaned, and sanitized within 3 hours before the next meal of the day. It’s been estimated that about 690,000 meals will be served to patients from September 2012-September 2013. The Medical Center’s cafeteria also gets much traffic and from January 1-Sept 30, 2012, they sold close to 2.3 million meals.

Dollars and Sense:
The composting and recycling hauling fee is cheaper than the landfill hauling fee. Switching to compostable food ware has been more expensive, especially since they switched to bagasse plates.

  1. The greatest challenge they faced was getting staff on board. The higher cost of switching to compostables and composting was difficult to sell to staff, especially since hospitals like to do more with less. Still, the hospital did not pass the costs of the new program onto patients and guests.
  2. Scraping and cleaning 500 trays within three hours was a logistical hardship but the staff, who found pride in sorting for composting, worked through finding an efficient system for themselves on their own.
  3. It was fairly easy to train staff by getting outside help that was knowledgeable to do so.
  4. Unless the compostable items are coming back into the Department of Nutrition and Food Services waste stream, they may not be getting composted.
Tips for Replication: 

For a successful program, you have to get staff engagement, especially administrative buy-in since they will be absorbing the costs.