Achieving a circular economy with zero food waste is the collective responsibility of government, academia, private enterprises, non-government organizations and consumers. It is also a constantly evolving issue across the globe.
[original article by Dalson Chung - see below]
We live in a world of diminishing resources but growing appetites. In fact, about a third of the food produced for human consumption every year is lost or wasted, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).1 Singapore alone generated about 800,000 tons of food waste in 2015—equivalent to two bowls of food per person per day—an amount which has increased by 45 percent over the past 10 years.2
Given the place of pride that food holds in our collective identity and as a small island nation that imports most of our food, this might come as a surprise. But this is a statistic that Singaporeans should be aware of, and hopefully, endeavor to change by conserving, maximizing, re-using and recycling, as much as possible, to reduce food waste.
The Circular Economy and Food Waste
In a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible; to minimize waste and resource use, resources are kept within the economy when a product has reached the end of its life, to be used again and again to create further value.
And that is where the challenge begins. Food wastage, unfortunately, occurs at various phases of its journey from farm to plate. This occurs mainly at the early stages of the food value chain for a variety of reasons, including inefficient harvesting techniques or inadequate storage facilities. On the other end of the spectrum, consumer behavior plays an important role in countries importing the food. For example, consumers tend to buy only the best looking produce of the same price range, leaving perfectly edible but unsold items to be discarded.
All of this wastage adds up. According to estimates by the FAO, almost 50 percent of all fruits and vegetables, 30 percent of cereals, 20 percent of meat and dairy and 35 percent of fish are wasted.3
The Washington-based Food Tank says that up to 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S., and approximately 1.3 billion tons of food globally, is wasted every year.
At the same time, more than 800 million people worldwide are going hungry. Up to 100 million tons of food are wasted annually in the European Union, potentially increasing by a fifth to 120 million by 2020,4 while China generates more than US$32 billion worth of food waste every year.5
The long-term impact of this wastage goes beyond just food. Agriculture uses 70 percent of the global freshwater withdrawal and when food is wasted, so is water.6 Food wastage would also be the third biggest contributor to global carbon emissions, producing an estimated 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent), including methane emissions from landfills, a gas more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat.7 Failing to resolve the issue of global food waste would have far-reaching effects on global sustainable development and the creation of a circular economy.
Concerted Global Effort
These statistics have illustrated the impact of food wastage and triggered an urgency for world leaders to tackle the issue. Champions 12.3 was recently formed at the World Economic Forum in Davos to galvanize the international community to reduce food loss and waste. The group aims to accelerate the progress to meet Target 12.3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goal—halve per capita food waste and reduce food losses by 2030. It is led by a coalition of 30 members, including high-level executives from Nestlé, Tesco, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, to name a few.
At the national level, countries have introduced different initiatives to reduce food wastage, ranging from China’s “Clean Your Plate” movement, to France banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the country’s first-ever national food loss and waste goal—to cut food waste in half by 2030.8 As part of this scheme, a wide range of initiatives will be launched, including the development of innovative technologies that aim to increase the reduction, recovery and recycling of food waste. Consumer education about food loss and waste will also be a key focus, including an app to help consumers understand how to store food and read food date labels.
The Singapore Context
In Singapore, the National Environment Agency (NEA) is taking an active role in reducing food wastage in every link of the food chain, by cultivating an understanding of food wastage among consumers, businesses and organizations, kick-starting initiatives to reduce food wastage and ensuring that food waste is given a second lease on life where possible. In January of this year, NEA launched a pilot to test the feasibility of recycling food waste onsite at hawker centers,9 and there is a second pilot coming up to explore the collection and transportation of food waste from multiple premises to a demonstration facility for co-digestion with used water sludge. In addition, it is also now mandatory for large malls and hotels to submit reports on their waste data and waste reduction plans to NEA.
With greater awareness, an increasing number of businesses in Singapore are taking a more proactive approach to reducing food waste. NTUC FairPrice, the largest supermarket chain in Singapore, developed a Food Waste Index10 that measures the annual total food waste against the total retail space of its stores in order to track its progress on various food waste reduction initiatives. To minimize wastage, McDonald’s Singapore uses a production management system that forecasts the quantity of products that needs to be prepared as well as a “cook in smaller quantities, but cook more often” approach, where food is prepared only after an order is received.11
It also makes business sense to reduce and recycle food waste. Hotels like Swissotel The Stamford, Singapore uses a composter to convert its food scraps into organic fertilizer for the hotel’s herb garden, which in turn supplies organically grown herbs, vegetables, fruit and edible flowers to all of the hotel’s F&B outlets. The Swissotel Merchant Court uses a digester system to transform its 350 tons of food waste produced per year into water, which can be used for washing floors and plant irrigation.12 Onsite food waste treatment systems, on top of producing resources from waste, also mean that organizations benefit by paying less for waste that needs to be hauled away for disposal—a win-win solution that benefits both businesses and the environment.
Changing Public Mindsets and Consumer Behaviors
The biggest challenge in reducing food waste will be to change longstanding perceptions and consumption patterns. One approach is through educating consumers on the potential savings from reducing food wastage or refraining from overbuying.
To do so, NEA’s food wastage reduction program encourages consumers to engage in smart food purchases, storage and preparation habits to extend the lifespan of groceries, helping households conserve valuable resources while saving on costs. Materials have also been developed to provide suggestions on meal planning, food storage, as well as recipes and innovative ideas on how to use leftover food to create tasty dishes.
Initiatives by supermarkets to repackage and sell unsold, cosmetically imperfect food also help to educate consumers about the quality of food for consumption, while reducing the amount of food that businesses throw away. This not only helps to change consumer behavior over the long term, but will also result in cost savings for businesses as well as consumers.
Leading the Food Waste Agenda in Asia
Achieving a circular economy with zero food waste is the collective responsibility of government, academia, private enterprises, non-government organizations and consumers. It is also a constantly evolving issue across the globe, with most countries now beginning to address the issue fully.
Dalson Chung is Managing Director of the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore as well as the Director in the Industry Development and Promotion Office and the Director in the Sustainability Office with the National Environment Agency (NEA). NEA, one of the two Statutory Boards of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), is the public organization responsible for improving and sustaining a clean and green environment in Singapore. For more information, visit www.cleanenvirosummit.sg.
- Open air food complexes