SINGAPORE: If you and your family made it a point to finish every morsel of your Chinese New Year meals, then you have all done exceptionally well.
This is because every year, Singapore sees hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food going to waste. According to the National Environment Agency, the country wasted approximately 790,000 tonnes of food in 2014. During the Chinese New Year period, food waste increases by up to 20 per cent.
As a small country with limited agricultural ability, Singapore is heavily reliant on imports for food. In 2014, Singapore spent US$10.6 billion (S$14.8 billion) importing 5.93 million tonnes of food. But out of that, 13 per cent of its imports, or US$1.4 billion worth of it, end up as waste.
Since 2004, food wastage has increased almost 50 per cent, while food imports have been steadily increasing by 37 per cent over the same period.
“As the country gets more affluent, society gets richer, more people have more income to buy food,” said Mr Eugene Tay, the founder of sustainability consultancy, Green Future Solutions, in an interview with Channel NewsAsia’s It Figures.
“We can buy a lot of food imported from different countries. You buy more stuff, and you can’t finish it, and it expires and then it goes to waste.”
In Singapore, food wastage has been traced to each and every step in the lifecycle of food production, from farm to dinner plates.
At the root: The Farm
Mr Alan Toh has been managing his farm, Yili Vegetation, for almost two decades. It is one of 200 small farms in Singapore. Along with his son, Mr Zheng Jie, he is part of Singapore’s agriculture industry, which occupies just 1 per cent of the island’s land space. With only four hectares of land to work with, Mr Toh’s main challenge is to maximise the efficiency of his small plot.
That is because even at this stage of the food process, Mr Toh sees his vegetables go to waste.
All too often, produce that is perfectly edible but slightly off-colour or bruised is not accepted for display and sale. In the business of food production, supermarkets and grocers are highly selective about the appearance of their produce, and Mr Toh is forced to discard edible produce that does not meet the aesthetic standards. This accounts for up to 25 per cent of his original output.
“It gives people an image,” said Mr Zheng. “If it does not look good, people will think it tastes bad. All these vegetables are still edible, but we couldn’t just sell (them). Just tossing (them) away for cosmetic purposes doesn’t feel good.”
Even at the point of purchase, more produce is rejected by customers, and it is usually down to cosmetics, said Mr Desmond Lee, a produce seller at a local market.
“Customers pay,” said Mr Lee. “They want high-quality products. They want everything to be perfect.” According to him, he ends up throwing out three tonnes of his produce each month. He estimates that the market as a whole throws out 300 tonnes of unsold food. “When you waste food, you’re not just wasting the food itself – you’re wasting all the resources, the water, the energy, the fertiliser and the labour,” said Mr Tay.
During food preparation itself, more ingredients are culled and condemned to the bin. According to studies done by National University of Singapore students in 2010, 10 to 20 per cent of food served in Singapore restaurants and hotel buffets goes to waste.
And food waste across the planet is growing. According to the United Nations, people around the world throw out one-third of the food that is produced for us to eat.
But food waste worries lie not only with the food that is wasted.
Once we have wiped our leftovers from our dinner plates into the trash bin, the waste needs to be disposed of. Typically, food waste would go to a landfill where it would decompose, or it would go to an incinerator.
Mr Edwin Khew, chairman of the Association of Sustainable Energy (SEAS), believes both methods need to be eliminated as much as possible.
“The issue with landfills obviously is the emissions of landfill gas, which is basically methane. This is a very bad greenhouse gas – it is 23 times worse than carbon dioxide,” said Mr Khew.
Burning food waste is Singapore’s primary method of waste disposal which uses enormous amounts of energy to do. Said Mr Khew: “The thing is that burning food means you use a lot of energy to evaporate the water in the food. Because there is about 80 to 85 per cent of liquid in any food. And you have to evaporate all that before the residue left behind can burn.”
One company, Eco-Wiz, is trying to tackle the issue of energy and waste disposal in a different way – by turning waste into water.
Eco-Wiz’s EcoDigester uses microbes to break down the food to produce water that can be reused for cleaning or landscaping purposes. Eco-Wiz CEO, Renee Mison, is hoping this food recycling system can help decrease energy use in waste disposal.
With little to no food waste, there is less need to transport rubbish to incinerators, she said.
This system is installed at around 30 hotels, restaurants and schools in Singapore and, most recently, was installed at Ang Mo Kio market, as part of an NEA-driven pilot programme to tackle Singapore’s food waste problems. Each digestor can process about 1 tonne of waste per day and it takes 24 hours to produce the reusable water.
Ms Mison believes the future will see far more efficient and useful recycling. “There are 20 million tonnes of food waste worldwide generated every day, so our goal is to recycle as much food waste as we can. And besides turning the food waste into recycled water, we are going to turn it into energy on site,” said Ms Mison.