the hospital struggles to get out of the plastic

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Since last November, the patients of the Claude Bernard – Elsan clinic in Albi have eaten their meals in a plastic tray, and no longer on a traditional plate. More precisely, the main course is served in a container in CPET extension (crystalline polyethylene terephthalate), recyclable and covered with a plastic film. This offer, called Prélude, was specially developed in 2020 by Sodexo for the Elsan group.

When this new offer was presented to us, we were all shocked, disappointed »testifies Martin [*], a carer of the clinic, very sensitive to environmental issues. This dish is now prepared and frozen in a Sysco factory in Noyal-Pontivy, Morbihan. Previously, it was made in the factory canteen by a Sodexo team, forced to part ways with an employee. For Martin and his colleagues, this abandonment of the plate in favor of a plastic tray, manufactured in Annecy, filled in Noyal-Pontivy, then transported by refrigerated truck some 800 km to Albi is totally absurd.

Returnable and non-recycled plastic crates

The Prélude offer has already been implemented in 46 establishments of the private group, which represents around 6,000 meals a day. Eventually, around 70 clinics will have adopted this system. For Elsan and Sodexo, however, this new system has several environmental advantages. In addition to better balanced and better calibrated portions, it would also reduce primary and secondary packaging during deliveries.

What confirms Antoine [*]Sodexo catering manager in a clinic switched to the Prélude offer a few months ago: We have previously received many boxes and packaging to cook our dishes. From now on, the plastic crates in which the crockery is delivered are registered and reused. » It acknowledges, however, that although the peripherals » (starter, dairy products and desserts) can continue to be served on plates, overall there are more often sealed products than before.

In Strasbourg hospitals meals are served in plastic plates. YouTube screenshot/ CHRU from Strasbourg

However, this is the big drawback of Elsan private clinics, as in most French public hospitals: while the yellow bin has become a reflex for most French people, plastic is only very rarely collected in these establishments. Therefore, Sodexo trays may be recyclable, in Albi, they are not recycled after the meal. In practice, for lack of a sector currently, they are treated as household waste, landfilled or incinerated. We have been fighting for years to establish the sorting of cardboard and plastic. In vain. Until recently, glass bottles were thrown away in the trash »Martin despairs.

Plastic collection is expensive for the hospital », acknowledges Lucile Battais, expert in sustainable development and logistics at the National Agency for the support of health and medical-social services (Anap). Given the large volumes, this waste is only very rarely taken over by local authorities. Hospitals have to turn to often expensive service providers. These are not yet very recoverable raw materials. You must also provide sorting bags or bins to rent additionally. And find sorting spaces in services and more time to manage all of that. It is complex to set up. » Especially in a context of very tight budgets and the end of the Covid crisis, with strong tensions, especially in terms of workforce.

In Limoges, patients eat from plates… of porcelain

Although plastic containers are still the majority in hospital catering, the Prélude offer by Elsan and Sodexo goes against the initiatives taken in recent years. In many hospitals in France, especially in the public, we observe a real let’s go back to the dishes », according to Rudy Chouvel. The coordinator of the Ecological Transition in Healthcare Committee of the French Hospitaller Federation (FHF) even conjures a swelling of the ground ». He cites as an example the hospitals of Limoges, that of Reunion, Le Mans or even Moulins.

In Limoges, where a new meal-making unit has just been built, patients now eat from porcelain plates (obviously !), custom design. Served on a real platter, the dishes also look more appetizing. However, a patient who eats better is also a patient who heals better. And who least wastes… A real driving force for restaurant managers who try to limit waste as much as possible.

Previously, trays were thrown into each care unit »

But switching or rummaging through dishes involves big changes in terms of organization. Investments can be massive », warns Rudy Chouvel. Dishes, bells, trolleys and adapted laundry systems… Lucile Battais, from Anap, also underlines the importance of retrologistics »i.e. the return of the dish after the meal: Previously, trays were thrown into each care unit. With reusable, new streams need to be set up to redirect dirty dishes to the cafeteria, which is sometimes far away. For agents in services, it’s clearly more time consuming. »

It is also necessary to provide for the renewal of the license plates. There is a break. In the factory where I was previously, in Niort, we had underestimated this factor. It takes a renewal rate of 20 % on average each year, which is not neutral. » Still, the game is worth the candle, in her opinion: The investment becomes profitable after a few years. »

The use of the tax base could accelerate further with the entry into force on 1um January 2025 of a new provision of the Egalim law, which will ban the use of plastic containers for cooking, reheating and serving food » in a certain number of services: paediatrics, obstetrics, maternity, perinatal… This new discipline, even if it will concern only a small part of hospital services, could play a role of the sink »hopes Rudy Chouvel.

Still a lot of plastic water bottles

But not all hospitals will be ready by early 2025. In fact, many of them are still not complying with the ban on plastic water bottles. A measure that, however, should have been applied for two years already. Rudy Chouvel believes it it should no longer be an argument. Facilities that haven’t yet given up on plastic water bottles don’t have too many excuses ».

Lucile Battais notes that this arrangement is not very well known in establishments. It’s also difficult to be adopted, because the idea that tap water is less good than bottled water is still very ingrained, and even exacerbated in the hospital. » Again, setting up carafes that need to be refrigerated or water fountains requires a lot of adjustments. It’s a fight I’ve never been able to carry on in my old factory »concludes.

The fight against food waste is progressing

If Sodexo’s Prélude offering doesn’t eliminate plastic, it at least has the merit of reducing food waste. Up to 30 %, according to Sodexo: There are no more production waste in the kitchen and we are no longer subject to changes in activity. » Antoine, Sodexo’s catering manager, confirms: since switching to the Prélude offer, the volume of waste in his canteen has dropped from 250 kg per week to just 125 kg. The establishment of a cold bond » (the frozen dish is heated one hour before being served) allows you to better adjust the number of meals on request. Sodexo also offers a waste weighing system in some establishments, called wasted watch »which allows you to identify the foods on which you need to commit.

Gourmet and responsible home, My responsible restaurant, Eating sustainably… Several tools have been developed and tested in hospitals to improve the quality of meals, adjust weight and reduce losses.

At the end of the supply chain, even in this case, things are moving, even if recovering leftover meals in all departments remains a challenge in organizational terms. Organic waste collection is starting to develop, especially as regulations now require it for establishments that have been producing more than 5 tons of organic waste per year since January.

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