Creating a sustainable foodservice

Tuesday, 18 December, 2018

Creating a sustainable foodservice

The food we eat represents an opportunity to reduce our environmental footprint both at home and at work. Making changes in institutional foodservice can make an even bigger difference due to its larger scale. Here are some ideas to consider.

Approximately 15% of all food purchased in Australian households is wasted.1 The commercial and industrial sector disposes of 2.2 million tonnes of edible food every year.2 Wasted food represents a double whammy for the environment: the loss of resources that went into producing it and the greenhouse gases and leachate it creates in landfill.3

Food waste is estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion each year.2

Hospital foodservice systems contribute up to 50% of all hospital waste.4 It has been suggested that some food waste is unavoidable to ensure patients’ food and nutrition needs are met. However, foodservice systems can be more reactive and flexible to minimise wasted food. For example, Wi-Fi enabled devices for taking food orders combined with expanded menu choices and innovative meal production and reheating technology. These allow for personalised meal ordering, reduced lag time between ordering and service and reduced incidence of default meals. Assisted meal times and easy-open packaging can reduce plate and tray waste.

The food waste hierarchy

The food waste hierarchy is a framework that ranks prevention as most favourable through to the last resort option of disposal into landfill.5

Food waste hierarchy
Prevention Avoid generating surplus food
Prevent avoidable food waste
(over-catering and plate waste)
Most favourable option
Re-use Re-use surplus food for people in need
(donate surplus food)
Recycle Recycle food waste into animal feed
Recycle food waste into compost
Recovery Recover energy from food waste
(not commonly available in Australia)
Disposal Dispose unavoidable food waste into landfill and collect gas for utilisation
(not commonly available in Australia)
Least favourable option (last resort)

Adapted from Papargyropolou, Lozano and Steinberger et al (2014).5

In the institutional setting, the food waste hierarchy could be applied in the following ways.


More responsive foodservice systems can provide the right food to the right person at the right time and avoid unwanted plated food.

Offering mid-meals and nutritional supplements rather than providing these as standard can reduce waste; however, this requires high staff involvement to avoid malnutrition.

Serving smaller portions in cafeterias can reduce plate waste.

Image credit: ©


Shelf-stable prepackaged food that is not delivered can be re-used. The re-use of prepackaged food that has been in a patient’s room is considered an infection risk and usually wasted. This problem is ripe for an innovative solution.

Donating surplus food to charities can save disposal costs and contribute to community wellbeing. The most well-known organisations are OzHarvest and Second Bite. They will collect food and distribute it to community groups in need at no cost. Legislation provides indemnity to organisations who donate safe food.


When food is no longer suitable for consumption, the nutrients can be returned to the soil as compost or in worm farms (vermiculture). This can be done off site or on site. Check out the Victorian food organics recycling guide6 to find out what might best suit your needs.

Organisations such as Regroundwill collect spent coffee grounds from cafes to make compost.

Collect food scraps for local farms.


Choosing recyclable packaging and having good recycling systems enables packaging resource recovery. Hospitals with compartmentalised waste collection trolleys allow sorting at the ward level. Providing separate recycling bins next to general waste allows visitors and staff to recycle packaging. Promote the use of re-usable coffee cups rather than disposable cups as most cannot be recycled.

Much of our waste ends up in landfill sites such as this one. Image credit: ©

Sustainable seafood

Australian seafood is some of the most well managed in the world; however, the majority of seafood consumed in Australia is imported. Choosing Australian seafood is a good way to ensure you are sourcing sustainable seafood. You can find out the status of Australian seafood species at Alternatively, look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) blue fish logo on products, or download the Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide app from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

Plant-based meals

Plant-based diets have a lower environmental impact than diets containing meat. This is because of the high resource requirements for meat production and the greenhouse gas emissions produced by ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep.8 Vegetarian and vegan dishes have become increasingly common on menus, although consumer research suggests the term ‘plant-based’ has the broadest appeal, even to meat eaters.9 The San Adventist Hospital in Northern Sydney has a predominantly (but not totally) plant-based menu. Talk to your staff dietitian about making your menu more plant-based. Sourcing local and seasonal food has environmental benefits as well.

Tap water

Australia is fortunate to have safe, potable water on tap in most areas. Despite this, bottled water is popular and this is unfortunate because bottled water has a big environmental impact. Plastic bottles are made from non-renewable fossil fuels10 and require large amounts of energy to produce. Many empty bottles enter the litter stream and they take around 450 years to degrade in landfill. Make tap water freely available to avoid the need for bottled water.

How to get started

A bin audit, similar to the kind carried out by ABC TV at Kiama High School as part of the War on Waste series, is a good start. This will immediately identify issues and provide a baseline for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of your efforts. Targeting high-volume, high-cost or avoidable food waste will yield tangible benefits. Framing the results in financial terms can help secure management support for taking action. Your local government (or hospital) sustainability officer or sustainability committee can help, as will harnessing general community awareness about environmental sustainability. Most people are concerned about our environment and looking for practical ways they can do their bit.

Sustainable foodservice in a nutshell

  • Avoid food waste in landfill
  • Encourage and support package recycling
  • Choose sustainable seafood
  • Promote plant-based meals
  • Make tap water standard
  • Get started with a bin audit.

*Nicole Senior is a freelance Accredited Practising Dietitian with a keen interest in food sustainability. She has worked as a consultant to the food industry, NGOs and governments, and is a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) Food and Environment Interest Group.

  1. National Sustainability Council. Sustainable Australia Report 2013: Conversations with the future - in brief. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government; 2013. Available from:
  2. Tackling Australia’s food waste. Australian Government Department of Environment and energy. Implementing the National Food Waste Strategy. Available at URL Accessed 20.10.18
  3. Victorian State Government, DHHS, 2016, ‘Victorian Food Organics Recycling: A guide for small-medium food services organisations’.  Accessed:
  4. Goonan S, Mirosa M & Spence H 2014, ‘Getting a Taste for Food Waste: A Mixed Methods Ethnographic Study into Hospital Food Waste before Patient Consumption Conducted at Three New Zealand Foodservice Facilities’, Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics, Vol. 14, No. 1 pp. 63-70.
  5. Papargyropoulou E, Lozano R, Steinberger JK et al. The food waste hierarchy as a framework for the management of food surplus and food waste. J of Cleaner Production 2014; vol 76:106-115
  6. Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. Victorian food organics recycling, A guide for small-medium food services organisations. Available at URL  Accessed 11.10.18
  8. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, 2006. Livestock’s long shadow- environmental issues and options. Available at URL Accessed  11.1.18
  9. Food Navigator, 19 April 2018. Plant based plays way better than vegan with most consumers, says Mattson. Available at URL Accessed 10.10.2018
  10. The real cost of bottled water. The University of Queensland. Available at URL Accessed 11.10.18

Top image credit: © Business Images

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