Tackling food waste: More measures needed, say experts

Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 2 Nov 14;

SINGAPORE: It is preparation time before the lunch crowd at the industrial area of Tai Seng flocks to Hei Sushi. The restaurant's staff is ready, preparing sushi with fresh cuts of salmon and rice. While doing so, the restaurant ensures very little goes to waste.

Bits of the salmon that do not make the cut for sashimi are used in a salad, or as topping for the Gonkan Sushi dish. Salmon skin is deep fried and pounded into pieces for salmon skin sushi. Fish bones are used as soup stock.

And, Sakae Holdings - the owner of Hei Sushi - has been piloting a treatment plant on its own premises to convert excess fish bones and other food waste into animal feed.

Its chairman Douglas Foo said: "Managing food wastage need not be at the end part of the finished product but as early as working with the farms. So we go and understand how the farms grow their fish, the kind of fish feed being used, the kind of yield - because when you have a better yield, you have less wastage of the cycle of the fish.

"So understanding that portion, all the way to how the cold supply chain is being managed. If the cold supply chain is not robust, you're going to have wastage as well because there could be damaged or unusable goods. Every part of the whole cycle and the whole process is being closely monitored."

While companies like Sakae Holdings are at the forefront of efforts to reduce food waste, it is an issue that continues to plague Singapore as well as countries across the world.

About one-third of all food is wasted, from the moment it is produced to the time it is consumed. According to the United Nations, that is enough to feed two billion people. If it is not recycled, food waste ends up in landfills where it produces methane - a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Like most developed countries, Singapore's food waste comes from different sources - food manufacturers, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. Last year, Singapore generated almost 800,000 tonnes of food waste - the highest in recent years. Experts say each individual in Singapore could be producing about 400 grammes of food waste every day.

In 2012, an inter-ministry committee was established to explore ways of reducing food waste. It came up with several recommendations. These included making it mandatory for large companies to report how much food they waste and conducting public outreach efforts. But these have yet to be implemented.

The committee, called the Food Wastage Reduction Working Group, also commissioned a survey in September to understand consumer behaviour and habits. Stakeholders like supermarkets say this is a good step.

In October, NTUC FairPrice came up with a framework to reduce food waste in its supermarkets. The supermarket chain estimates it generated 0.3 per cent of the nation's total food waste last year, the bulk of it is fruit and vegetable waste. Over the years, it has been trying to reduce food waste. Prices of seafood and chilled meat are marked down on the second day on the shelf and disposed of on the third, if unsold.

When it comes to choosing fruits and vegetables, you may be surprised at how your habits may result in food waste. For example, by picking up an orange, pressing it to see if it is ripe or smelling it, you could be damaging the feel and look of the fruit. And if it does not look good, chances are, it will be left unsold, and eventually disposed of. To address this, supermarkets often pre-pack some fruits and vegetables.

Since consumers are more likely to buy produce that looks good, food will have to go through what is known as "cosmetic filtering" before they are put on the shelves. At NTUC FairPrice, staff trim vegetables to get rid of the leaves that are less pleasing to the eye. Those that cannot be saved and remain unsold will be disposed of, even if it is still edible. This is something FairPrice wants to address.

NTUC FairPrice CEO Seah Kian Peng said: "Going forward, we may have a section where food and vegetables may not look so nice, but certainly very wholesome, and the prices I think should be different. This way, instead of being thrown away and being disposed of, it can still be consumed. Even the things that need to be thrown away, what can be done with it? Some of it could be channelled towards animal consumption, some of it could be used for energy - bio fuels."

"So we want to look at it from every angle, we want to come up with a very structured programme and that is the driving force behind us coming up with this food waste programme."

About 50 FairPrice stores also donate items such as dented cans, vegetables and other products to organisations such as 'Food Bank Singapore' and 'Food from the Heart'. FairPrice says these products are still "wholesome" and edible and are redistributed to underprivileged Singaporeans.

According to official figures, food waste has risen by about 42 per cent since 2007. The biggest contributors are the manufacturing and retail sectors. Green Future Solutions, an environmental consulting company, is planning a campaign to educate businesses on how to cut food waste. It has been running a similar campaign for households.

Green Future says there is no pressure on companies to reduce their food waste. Neither are there clear incentives to encourage them to do so. Eugene Tay, director of Green Future Solutions, said: "Currently there is no legislation saying they have to reduce food waste. They are not penalised by the government for throwing away food, so that has to change."

"For a start, the inter-ministry committee can look at setting up a cross-sector partnership or committee where they can get private sector and NGOs together to set targets and guidelines and look at some policies to reduce food waste. I guess that's a start before we introduce any legislation."

Singapore's recycling rate rose for the second consecutive year to 13 per cent in 2013. But it is below the 30 per cent target which Singapore was supposed to have reached by 2012. Mr Tay said food manufacturers lack knowledge on how to sort waste and there are no clear recycling options for them.

This is also one of the reasons why Singapore's only food recycling plant, IUT Global, shut down in 2011. The plant, which turned food waste into biogas and fertiliser, was operating at below capacity since it opened in 2008.

Mr Tay said: "Without that commercial-scale recycling plant, our recycling rate will probably remain constant for a few years. But if you look at the government's plan, they are going to set up an Integrated Waste Management Facility which will be ready between 2021 and 2024."

The facility will generate biogas from food waste and sewage sludge. Downstream, the Singapore Environment Council launched an anti food-waste campaign in October targeting individuals and households through a video.

Meanwhile, advocates against food waste say individuals can be empowered in simple ways to reduce food waste. For example, one could create a shopping list before stepping out of the house to avoid buying more than what is needed.

- CNA/ir