A Food Issue That Does Not Go Away, Not Even In Singapore

Renowned for its wide variety of culinary styles and exotic blends of spices unique to the multi-cultural backdrop, Singapore faces an issue like many affluent nations – food waste.

Food waste is a persistent problem. With a total of 687,200 tonnes (equivalent to about 152,000 adult Asian elephants) of food thrown away in 2014 based on the latest statistics generated by the National Environmental Agency (NEA), Singapore had barely progressed since 2011 in terms of food recycling and wastage. The national food waste recycling rate still hovers around 13%; a far cry from the target of 30% set in the Singapore Green Plan back in 2012.

Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Besides the emotional guilt arising from not being able to feed starving children elsewhere in the world, food waste affects our environment in many ways.

From production to consumption, the amount of resources required to bring food to our mouths is often not emphasised enough. Resources such as land, water, fertilisers, pesticides, energy, manpower and money are just but a few things involved in the process of filling up our stomachs. Wasting food is akin to wasting these resources at a flick of the plate.

Reducing the first five resources by producing only what we need can help reduce the following pollutions:

  • land pollution from additional non-biodegradable containers and cutlery used in the preparation, transportation and consumption of food;
  • water pollution from the use of excess fertilisers and pesticides that seep into water sources; and
  • air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels to power vehicles for the harvest and transport of food.

Not forgetting the impact of bioaccumulation of pesticides along the ecological food chain, particularly for marine animals; high pesticide levels may result in detrimental health effects on the apex predator, including humans. This is because pesticides tend to accumulate in predators higher up in the food chain as they consume more prey than other predators lower down the chain. Without an apex predator, food chains become unstable leading to an imbalanced eco-system.

The treatment of food waste through incineration or dumping into landfills generates another set of environmental problems. Incineration produces carbon dioxide that acts as a greenhouse gas. The decomposition of food in a landfill releases methane gas. Methane gas is 23% more effective in producing the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide gas, exacerbating the global warming problem, either way.

Singapore contributes only 0.2% of the global greenhouse gas emissions thanks to its small population and its innovative use of the Waste-to-Energy (WTE) approach – incinerating waste to generate about 2% of the nation’s demand for electricity followed by disposal of the ashes into the landfill. Nevertheless, every effort in reducing greenhouse gas emission is very much welcome from the global perspective.

Current Efforts on Curbing Food Waste

Much has been said about where food is wasted both at home and in public places. With a burgeoning Food and Beverage (F&B) sector that aims to attract the best patrons in Singapore, it is not difficult to imagine that food wastage will only increase as businesses compete to provide only the best ingredients with the largest variety for their customers. What is being done then to curb food wastage?

The Save Food Cut Waste campaign website suggests eight simple tips for individuals to reduce and recycle food at home. The tips revolve around concepts of moderation and maximizing resources so that every food item purchased is fully utilised.

To encourage food recycling and reduce food wastage in shopping malls and hotels, a new initiative known as the 3R Fund is recently introduced in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015. The initiative provides additional financial support for current efforts in developing in-situ food waste treatment. An example already implemented in Siloso Beach Resort is the use of an on-site food compost to produce fertilisers for growing vegetables that can be harvested. NEA is also considering the feasibility of such financial support for hawker centres, where food wastes can also be quite substantial.

With these initiatives and campaigns in place, what is lacking now is an impactful delivery of the message to key stakeholders. Singapore is a small country that does not rely on agriculture, thus the environmental impact of food wastage is understandably less felt and less impactful. However, with a well-educated population with an ambition to spear-head initiatives in the region, it is not difficult to convince Singaporeans on the benefits of reducing food waste and recycling food. What is needed is education and more processes to make food recycling accessible.

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