JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Brooke Army Medical Center Department of Nutritional Medicine is implementing a new reusable container option at the dining areas throughout the hospital.

Patrons now can choose to use a reusable plastic container when getting food at a dining area within the hospital. The containers can hold anything from classic fare meals to soup, salad or pizza.

"Our hope is that people will opt for this option because it will help reduce waste and costs and help us save the environment," said Army MAJ David Elliott, deputy chief, Department of Nutritional Medicine. "Each year we spend more than $1.2 million on disposable containers, plastic cutlery and cups, etc."

How it works

Customers going through a food line can ask the server for the reusable container option or simply pick it up when getting self-serve items such as pizza, soup or the salad bar. When checking out, the cashier will charge them a one-time non-refundable fee of $5 for the container.

"You paid for it, you own it, you can take it home or use it however you like," Elliott said. "But the next time you come into the dining facility please don't bring you old container and try to fill it with food. Instead, you will need to get a new one, because the containers must be cleaned and sanitized by DNM staff before reuse."

To return the soiled container the customer simply inserts it, with the barcode facing up, into one of the three receptacle machines located throughout BAMC. The machine will scan the barcode and issue the customer a token. The machines are located in the main dining room on the lower level, in the grab and go by the Garden entrance and outside the Café Express located in the Pediatrics hallway on the first floor.

"The machine is really just a receptacle to hold the dirty containers," Elliott said. "The bottom of the container has a barcode. You put the container up-side-down in the receptacle, it reads the barcode and dumps it into a bin and releases a token."

When the machine is full, it sends an email to the dining room staff so they can retrieve the bag full of soiled containers. These containers are then taken to the dish washer to be cleaned and sanitized and put back out on the lines for reuse.

"Customers should dump and scrape any food remnant from the container into the regular trash before they are put into the machine," Elliott said. "This helps the staff properly clean and sanitize them for reuse."

Patrons must have a token when checking out to avoid being recharged for the reusable container.

"The token is what you use instead of paying the $5 again at the cashier," Elliott explained.

"Patrons will still have the option of using a regular plate and silverware or opting for the disposable container, but we hope they will opt to use the reusable container when possible," he said, noting many people choose the disposable containers even when they are eating in the dining facility.

"Those disposable food containers are expensive," Elliott said. "For example, the big clamshell container, made out of formed cardboard, costs 33 cents apiece and here at BAMC we send over 76,000 of them to the landfill each month."

"The three machines were an initial investment of about $90,000, but if we get 20 percent of our customers the use the re-usable containers it will pay for itself in about six months," Elliott said. "The cost savings is only a secondary reason for us starting this program. Our primary goal is sustainability. We hope to save the planet by not producing more trash than we need to."