Good Earth

Food waste becomes a concern

06:40 SGT August 22, 2017
Agrarian and consumerist societies in South-east Asia might be ignoring massive food wastage in the wake of moving towards development

United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted globally a year. This amount could feed the world’s starving population of 868 million nearly four times. The small island nation of Singapore alone generated 791,000 tonnes of food wastage in 2016, which is equivalent to 2,161 tonnes of food waste generated a day — enough to fill 270 eight tonne capacity garbage trucks.

In Malaysia, food waste is an equally grave problem. In 2016, Malaysians generated some 38,000 tonnes of waste per day, of which 15,000 tonnes was food waste, according to Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp Malaysia), a government agency dealing with solid waste. About a third of food produced each year is never eaten either because it is spoiled after harvest and during transportation, or thrown away by shops and consumers, according to FAO.

Growing prosperity and income levels in the fast-developing urban cities in South-east Asia and the neighbouring region, rising consumerism and changing lifestyles are possible reasons for wastage at the consumer level. But these are not the sole factors. “We realised there was a lot of food wastage at the supply chain level. A lot of food supplied to hospitality business was rejected if it did not meet the specific
criteria in size or delivery standards,” says Nichol Ng, co-founder of Food Bank Singapore.

In Singapore, food waste accounts for an estimated 10% of the total waste generated, although only 14% of the food waste is recycled, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA). The NEA reported that the amount of food waste has increased by about 50% over the past 10 years and is expected to increase in tandem with the republic’s growing population and economic activity.

In Singapore, food waste accounts for an estimated 10% of the total waste generated, although only 14% of the food waste is recycled, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Some 92% of the food in Singapore is imported. While there are strict quality checks, there are no quantity checks in terms of how much food was rejected or wasted in the process of importing and distribution, says Ng. Many countries in Europe are moving towards a tax system that protects the environment but a recycling or carbon foot print tax is still unheard of in Asia.

According to Mintel’s 2017 Global Food and Drink Trend ‘Waste Not’ report, traditional dining etiquette in China encourages hosts to order lots of food to show their guests hospitality, as well as to earn “face”. Consequently, this has led to high volumes of food waste. The report cited a 2016 study from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research which estimated that China’s foodservice industry  was wasting 17-18 million tons of food every year, enough to feed 30-50 million people.

A similar problem is faced in multi-ethnic Malaysia, a “food paradise” that boasts of serving the entire Asia on a platter, be it Malay, Chinese or Indian cuisines. The quantity of food is also tied to South-east Asian expectations of hospitality. It is no surprise that SWCorp recorded a 50% increase in food waste during the festive periods.

While a lot of these countries are waking up to obesity as a problem, the numbers for under-nutrition are still as high. And the counter balance of food waste mocks the irony of it.

Food wastage is an issue that has been on the minds of consumers, brands and government organisations alike. Amid growing concerns surrounding food wastage, governments are setting up various initiatives to address the food problems at various levels. In 2013, the Chinese government launched a nationwide “Clean Your Plate” campaign to encourage consumers not to over-order at restaurants and, if they do, to take it with them in takeaway bags. Such campaigns have the potential to tackle food  scarcity in a country that is dealing with an ever-growing population, which puts an even greater strain on resources.

The Malaysian government has also lauched a MYSaveFood initiative — teaming up with organizations such as FAO and SWCorp Malaysia — to educate Malaysians on food wastage.


The other side of this gloomy reality is the added strain on the environment. With food waste figures scaling in double digits, landfills are running out. As at 2016, Malaysia reportedly had 170 waste disposal sites — of which only 14 hold “sanitary landfill” status.

When food waste goes to the landfill, it breaks down and emits greenhouse gases such as methane, which can lead to severe impact on climate change and global warming. Some countries have therefore introduced waste segregation laws to help manage this — although compliance has been a problem. The cost of waste management thus adds yet another burden on the economy and the environment. “When the amount of waste increases, the cost of managing it [also] increases. At the same time, we have to provide space in landfills,” Dr Mohd Pauze Bin Mohamad Taha, deputy CEO (Technical), SWCorp Malaysia, was quoted as saying.

Land scarcity and waste management are pressing issues for Hong Kong, a territory that squeezes 7.3 million people onto 1,106sqm. The landfills it uses for waste will be full by 2019, unless extended. The trash rate is also on the rise, jumping from 1.35kg per person per day in 2014 to 1.39kg in 2015. Additionally, Hong Kong has the world’s highest electronic waste (e-waste) rate. And to make things worse, the recycling rate fell from 48% in 2011 to 35% in 2015.

To address its waste woes, the government is following the example of Asian cities such as Seoul and Taipei and charging for waste. Consumers already pay for plastic bags at shops. Producers will begin paying for e-waste in a scheme the Hong Kong government is implementing in phases over this year and next year, while glass producers will start paying “as soon as practicable”. Recent-elect Carrie Lam’s administration will charge consumers and businesses for their municipal solid waste in 2019, if a bill before the legislative council is passed.

The government is also building waste processing infrastructure. For instance, it set up Eco-Park in Tuen Mun in 2007 to promote waste recycling businesses. It has also built a waste-to-energy sludge treatment facility in the same area called T-Park, which opened last year.


While governments have started to address the situation, like everything else, food waste reduction begins at home. Simple steps can be taken to salvage leftover food at home as well. SWCorp estimates RM2,700 (US$612) worth of food per year is wasted in an average household of five people.

Hayati Ismail, director of Food Aid Foundation, organized the collection of unwanted or unsold food from hotels and hypermarkets, as well as other establishments, to distribute to charitable/welfare homes, poor families and soup kitchen. Hayati is therefore encouraging more hotels to contribute their unserved food — but due to a lack of Good Samaritan laws in Malaysia, many are hesitant as they do not want to be held liable should the food become unfit for consumption.

Hayati, however, gets around this by getting all donors to sign an indemnity form, while her team strictly checks all donated food before serving them. “The number one source of food waste is domestic waste, from the household,” says Hayati in an interview with a news channel.
“Second is the pasar malam (night markets) and Ramadan bazaars. Third is waste from the food courts, then comes the F&B sector.”

A hefty 83% of those surveyed said they prefer to buy fresh-looking fruits and vegetables, and one in four admitted they would never eat misshapen, discoloured or bruised fruits and vegetables.

Brother-sister duo Nichol and Nicholas Ng founded The Food Bank Singapore to primarily bring together food distributors, manufacturers and suppliers to re-channel the wasted or rejected goods. In the first year, The Food Bank Singapore received food donations of about two tonnes and five years later, today, it has grown to 17 tonnes. “Operating as a food distributor ourselves, we realised the need for a sustainable way to salvage food that was unsold, rejected or simply left unused. The supplier would seldom take responsibility and so we started the food bank,” says Ng.

Sometimes, strict quality checks and standards laid down by the regulators can create wastage. An example is the four-hour rule in Singapore, where cooked food must be consumed within four hours of being served. While the food is not essentially spoilt (if it is treated and packaged with care), it is often thrown away to avoid the legal liability. The Food Bank redistributes this food to the needy along with several other programmes that salvage close-toexpiry
or rejected packaged goods.


Personal responsibility is a slow chase and while awareness about reducing food waste at home is catching up with the conscious lifestyle, it is putting pressure on brands to act more ethically. Research from Mintel’s Marketing to Mintropolitans China 2017 report shows that almost half of respondents say that an ethical brand should make efforts to reduce waste.

The study finds brands and companies that proactively promote and perform sustainability will therefore win the appreciation and loyalty of consumers. Some restaurants have partnered with food distribution NGOs or groups that collect leftover food and serve it to homeless and needy people, while some have started a “sharing fridge”, offering leftovers for people in need. Other means include serving dishes in different sizes or even penalising consumers for wasteful behaviour.

Recently, Fresh Produce Alliance became the first company in Australia to launch a baby food range, Born Pure, which is made using highpressure processing and lower-grade produce to support Australian farmers by using all their harvest. It makes sure the taste and nutrition of the food are not compromised.

Retailer Woolworths announced that it would eliminate the food waste it sends to landfill by 2020, and set up a partnership with Australian food rescue organization, OZ Harvest. The partnership works to collect and distribute edible food to people in need across Australia.

Davina Patel, Global Food And Drink Trends analyst, says that brands that offer inventive solutions to food waste issues are likely to entice consumers who are vested in doing their bit for sustainability.

According to a Mintel report, a number of inspiring platforms have been launched to tackle the issue. Singapore saw the launch of 11th Hour, a mobile app that aims to prevent food wastage by listing last-minute food deals within close geographical proximity.

Earlier this year, Singapore’s NEA launched the two-year “Love Your Food @ Schools Project”. As part of this initiative, 10 primary and secondary schools were equipped with food waste digesters that turn discarded food into compost. This project seeks to encourage youth to cherish food and act to reduce the amount of food being thrown away.

According to NTUC FairPrice, its food waste index, which measures total food waste per sqm of retail space, fell from 6.9kg/sqm in 2015 to 6.3kg/sqm in 2016. When it first launched its food waste reduction initiative in 2014, the index was 11.6kg/sqm.

The supermarket chain attributed the drop to its food waste reduction and donation programmes. Its Great Taste Less Waste Selection initiative, for example, involves cutting “ugly” fruits and vegetables into smaller pieces and repackaging them at lower prices. Fruits and vegetables amount to about 60% of all food waste, says NTUC FairPrice.


In a survey by household appliance brand Electrolux, 1,000 Singaporeans were interviewed on their buying and eating behaviours. According to eco-, of those surveyed, 52% admitted they would rather throw away “ugly food” instead of