Practice Greenhealth Uses BioSpecs to Develop a Questionnaire for Evaluating Food Service Ware Vendors

Practice Greenhealth (PGH), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting environmental solutions within the health care sector, identified polystyrene elimination as a top priority among its members in 2010. Calling polystyrene an “eye sore,” this organization hosted a webinar in November of that year to highlight a ban on nonrecyclable food service ware in Santa Monica, California and discuss strategies for undertaking similar actions in health care facilities. To advance this initiative, they needed to offer user-friendly tools to help health care purchasing agents easily identify food service ware alternatives that have verifiable environmental benefits such as certified biobased content and compostability. After attending a webinar held by SBC and the Responsible Purchasing Network (RPN) in January 2012, Beth Eckl, Director of PGH’s Greening the Supply Chain Initiative, requested technical support from the webinar’s presenters. Beth discussed this issue with several of PGH’s members, and found interest at two Group Purchasing Organizations (GPOs) – companies that supply a wide range of products to health care facilities, universities and other types of institutions.) These members were interested in a vendor questionnaire they could use to guide their food service ware contract development process.

Using the SBC BioSpecs, PGH and RPN staff worked together to create a document called Suggested Environmental Considerations for Disposable Food Ware, which includes questions purchasers can ask suppliers about the “green” certifications and other environmental attributes of their products, along with a rationale for each question. It also describes important sustainability standards that apply to disposable food service ware and defines other relevant terms. Moreover, it has been tailored to focus on the particular interests and needs of health care purchasers. For example, it asks vendors about the presence of chemicals that can negatively impact human health, such as fluorinated grease barriers that are persistent in the environment and can concentrate in the food chain. It also urges purchasers to request product samples, noting: “Hospitals may want to performance test compostable food service ware to ensure that it does not leak, deform in hot water, or create sharp edges when broken.” By including these details, the vendor questionnaire enables health care facilities to clearly see how their food service ware choices can support their mission of promoting improved health for their patients as well as environmental protection.

Like the BioSpecs, the PGH vendor questionnaire can be used to evaluate a full range of food service products such as cutlery, hot and cold cups, plates, bowls and trays. It also similarly addresses potential environmental, health and social equity issues associated with food service ware products throughout their lifecycle – including biobased feedstock production, product manufacturing, and end-of-life waste management.

In addition to providing the vendor questionnaire directly to these two GPOs, PGH has also disseminated it to other health care facilities in its national network. Another PGH member that expressed interest in using the BioSpecs purchasing is UC Health of Cincinnati, OH. Marc Feldman, Senior Supply Chain Consultant for this health care system, contacted PGH, noting that UC Health was in the process of phasing out the use of polystyrene cups. Marc asked PGH for help evaluating the compostable food ware offered by its current vendor. He then sent the BioSpecs to UC Health’s primary food service supplies vendor and asked for a report detailing how its products comply with the sustainability criteria detailed in the BioSpecs. The vendor, which considers itself a company committed to sustainability, was happy to identify the environmental standards met by each of its products. While it did not fill out all of the information, it reported that all of its products are either certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) or made of an uncoated natural fiber such as paper, which would quickly degrade in a commercial composting facility. The vendor also identified the country of origin of each its product and shared that while it has used overseas manufacturers in the past, large institutional purchases could help vendors source more products that are made in the US by specifying or offering a preference for them when awarding contracts.

Through this collaborative development process, PGH, SBC and RPN have used the BioSpecs to help health care facilities screen food service ware products offered by vendors to ensure that they will, indeed, improve the environmental and health impacts of their supply chains. For more information about Practice Greenhealth’s Greening the Supply Chain Project and its disposable food service ware vendor questionnaire, contact Beth Eckl at