In 2018, a whopping 763 million kg of food waste was generated in Singapore. Where did they all disappear to? Claire Soong investigates.
Growing up, you probably had parents tell you to finish whatever was on your plate and remind you not to waste food. I have a friend who once sat at the table for four hours when she was younger—her mother wouldn’t let her leave until she ate every last grain of rice. If the culture of finishing food is so instilled in us, why is the weight of 2018’s food waste in Singapore equivalent to 54,000 double decker buses, as stated by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR)?
What counts as food waste?
First things first: food waste isn’t just the food you failed to finish. It includes all discarded food that was fit for human consumption at some point. To an extent, a certain level of food waste is unavoidable—banana peels, bones and eggshells are all considered items that may technically be edible, but weren’t necessarily intended to be.
The main problem stems from avoidable food waste. This includes items that wouldn’t have had to go to waste if meals had been planned better, such as leftovers or expired food, or foods that are physically undesirable such as bruised fruits.
Restaurants and grocery stores are often faced with a surplus of food due to poor stock management or inaccurate demand forecasting, while consumer food waste comes from expired food living in the back of fridges and cupboards.
As a carb-lover, it pains me to read that staple foods such as rice, noodles and bread are the items most commonly wasted by Singaporeans, as reported by MEWR. In the past 10 years, food waste has increased by 30%. As if it wasn’t large enough, that number is expected to grow along with the population and economic activities.
Where does it go?
Preston Wong, CEO & Lead Innovator and treatsure, an app that redistributes surplus food from businesses to consumers, breaks down the typical journey of food from plate to waste: “On site, post-consumption plate waste will either be disposed into bins or recycled in food digesters [if available] into other by-products like fertiliser or water. Digesters are available in some commercial premises and food establishments, but [their] presence is set to increase with [last year’s] enactment of the Resource Sustainability Act.”
The National Environment Agency (NEA) estimates that only 17% of Singapore’s food waste is recycled, while the majority of disposed food is sent to waste-to-energy (WTE) plants for incineration. Post-incineration, products are brought to Pulau Semakau, our only landfill. Fortunately, Singapore is taking more steps to build a circular economy. Preston says that the government is “testing new solutions, [such as] building a plant for the co-digestion of food waste with used water sludge to produce biogas.”
Biogas is believed by some to be the solution to a circular economy because it can be used in totality. The gas itself is a renewable energy source, and its byproduct as a replacement for chemical fertiliser.
Less conventional (but more positive) routes for food that is still edible, but nearing the waste stage are reallocation and redistribution. Companies such as treatsure aim to minimise food waste by connecting businesses to consumers. Their buffet-in-a-box concept allows app users to enter partner restaurants 30 to 60 minutes prior to closing to select and bring food home in a takeaway box without paying full price for the buffet.
The app also works with grocery suppliers to allow users to order and receive surplus groceries such as produce, snacks, oils, dairy and more at special rates. “These [items] may be in excess, expiring or blemished [goods] that the retailers and supermarkets may not accept on their shelves,” Preston says, adding that they’re still perfectly fine to eat.
Some organisations, such as Food Bank Singapore and Willing Hearts accept excess food donations to those who need it most. Community networks like SG Food Rescue aim to redistribute food not only to the underprivileged, but to whoever wants to repurpose and consume it.
Why should we care?
For one thing, our homes account for half of the food waste in Singapore. According to Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, half of the food waste from Singapore comes from residential households.
As more waste is generated, more land is needed to cope with its disposal, which means less land available for housing, and land scarcity leads to higher property prices.
“It takes up land [and] resources to incinerate, [as well as] space in the landfill, both of which are particularly of concern in the context of land-scarce Singapore. We might need to clear more land to build more of these facilities. Semakau, in particular, is expected to be depleted by 2035 at the current rate of waste,” says Preston, adding that the environmental implications of excess waste are concerning because decomposition in landfills releases methane, a greenhouse gas, and the incineration process contributes to greenhouse emissions.
Even the act of transporting waste everyday contributes to the carbon footprint. If food waste reaches the point where it can’t be managed in a timely manner, the NEA’s site says it could “encourage odour nuisance issues and vermin proliferation.” Basically, if you don’t want this island to smell like garbage or to be overrun by roaches, stop wasting food.
On a broader scale, it’s not only food that is wasted, but also all the resources used in growth, production and delivery—which is a lot considering the fact that Singapore imports over 90% of our food. Also, you’re essentially throwing money away if you’re buying food that you end up not eating.
More from CLEO:
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Why Are Sustainable Products So Expensive In Singapore?
Journey towards zero waste
I once read that although people love food, we don’t respect it. The concept of having respect for food is a bit of a strange one, but important to keep in mind considering it’s what fuels our body. The United Nations estimates that 33% of the world’s food is lost or wasted annually, while at the same time a staggering 10% of the global population goes hungry. Preston says in an ideal world we would use technology to more accurately forecast consumption needs, with any surplus being upcycled or redistributed.
Until we get there, here are some easy ways to reduce your food waste:
- Grocery shop like a European
Shop more often, buying only what you need for the next few meals.
- Say no to freebies
Out of habit, we often accept the free side dishes laid out on our tables at Chinese or Korean restaurants, or order food that comes in portions we know we can’t finish. If you don’t plan on eating more than one or two pieces, say you don’t need them or ask for a smaller portion; likewise, you can always ask for less rice or noodles if it comes with your meal.
- Save the excess
Repurpose leftovers into a new meal, or donate unused food to an organisation so you can feed someone who needs it.
Start at the root of the problem by buying less and redistributing if you still have a surplus, then separate food waste from normal waste when possible so it can be recycled and treated. Sometimes I find it difficult to put in perspective how saying “no” to a single straw can help the planet (and yes, I understand that the impact comes from everyone saying “no” to straws), but reducing food wastage is more tangible and its effects more impactful on an individual level. Because of that, I find it easier to practice, especially because I save money while I’m at it.
Text: Claire Soong