A mountain of food waste — can Singapore pave a way out?

An elderly cleaner shuffles up to a table at one of Singapore’s many open-air hawker centres, pushing a trolley laden with dirty, food-encrusted dishes. A diner has left a plate behind with what looks like a freshly-ordered meal. The curried chicken is barely touched, there’s a heaped serving of stir-fried vegetables and half a bowl of rice.
An unfinished lunch may seem unremarkable, but multiply it across Singapore’s population of several million people and the amount of food being wasted does not look quite so harmless.
The statistics are sobering. About 791,000 tonnes of food were wasted in Singapore in 2016, or the equivalent of around two bowls of rice every day per Singaporean, according to data by the National Environment Agency (NEA).
This figure has spiked 40 per cent in the last decade, far out stripping the rate of population growth of 16 per cent. Out of that tonnage, a paltry 14 per cent is recycled. The rest ends up rotting in the nearest incineration plant.
The problem of food wastage may be pandemic across most developed countries, but it is especially paradoxical considering the lengths that Singapore goes to ensure that nobody goes hungry.
Land scarcity in Singapore has made agriculture and farming a casualty in the perennial fight for ground, forcing the country to look beyond its borders to feed its population.
As a result, Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food, leaving it vulnerable to low crop yields, natural disasters and other disruptions to its food supply, not to mention the unpredictable price fluctuations.
“Food security is regarded as a non-traditional security threat for Singapore,” says Saidul Islam, an associate professor of sociology and an urban food security expert at Nanyang Technological University.
The government tries to mitigate risk by diversifying food sources across an ever-increasing number of countries, encouraging the use of alternatives like frozen meats and liquid eggs, and investing in research and development to boost its modest local farms’ productivity.
In short, a Herculean effort is made to ensure an uninterrupted supply of food into the country, often paid for at higher prices, even though a significant amount of it ends up as garbage.
The NEA warns that the situation will only worsen in the coming years as the population grows and economic activity increases.
Old landfills on the mainland are already filled to capacity, leaving just one remaining landfill in Semakau — a man-made depository created offshore because space on the mainland was so limited.
The rate at which waste is being dumped in Singapore means this landfill is projected to be filled to capacity by 2035, 10 years ahead of its expected lifespan.
Trying to pinpoint the exact reasons for the problem is difficult because of the sheer multiplicity of players involved in the food supply chain.
Industry insiders point to supermarkets as major offenders due to the size of their role in the food supply process. NTUC Fairprice, the largest supermarket chain in Singapore, reported that 60 per cent of its food wastage stems from unsold produce.
Fair price in turn cites consumers’ unwillingness to purchase fruits and vegetables that are lightly blemished or bruised.
Households aren’t free from their share of culpability. A survey by statutory bodies found that 1 in 4 Singaporeans bought “more than enough” food to ensure their fridges were well-stocked.
Hotels also face difficulty in telling guests not to take more than they consume, said Rainer Tenius, the general manager of Swissotel Merchant Court.
Some industry players, however, are determined to target the problem before it worsens.
Nicholas Ng, co-founder of Food Bank Singapore, urges food production companies like Kellogg’s and Fraser & Neave to donate their surplus goods. His group volunteers to pick up and redistribute it to beneficiaries like senior citizens’ centres and orphanages.
Companies are also realising that excess food waste comes at the expense of their own bottom lines. Not only are costs incurred in purchasing, transporting and preparing food but also in paying garbage trucks to haul the waste away.
In a bid to reduce food wastage, NTUC Fairprice began cutting and re-packaging unsold produce in 2016, re-selling it at discounted prices.
Renee Mison, owner of waste management company Eco-Wiz, has been lobbying for malls and hotels to adopt more sustainable solutions. One of her flagship technologies involves feeding organic waste into a digester, where a microbial process converts it into recycled water, non-potable water and liquid fertilizer.
Swissotel Merchant Court uses a similar system, recycling 17 tonnes of organic waste monthly that would have otherwise been carted off to the nearest incinerator.
These measures are an encouraging shift against the tide, but whether the change can come rapidly enough remains to be seen, especially in the face of corporate bureaucracy, rigid mindsets and a lack of environmental consciousness.
“Some organisations think it’s not a priority and they put it aside. It depends on their priority and direction,” says Mison. “We are moving in that direction, but it’s not fast enough.” — dpa

Zubaidah Jalil