Malaysia: 3,000 tonnes a month: Why are Malaysians wasting so much food?


Supermarkets in France have been banned from throwing away or spoiling unsold food, by law and are now required to donate unwanted food to charities and food banks. Could Malaysia similarly benefit from legislation to control food waste in the country?

IT is shocking. Every day, Malaysia disposes of 3,000 tonnes of preventable food waste, the largest contributor of solid waste and largest source of harmful greenhouse gases in the country.

The amount makes up between 31 and 45 per cent of an average of 36,000 tonnes of garbage generated annually, says the National Solid Waste Management Department.

The national coordinator for the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry-Japan Environment Ministry collaboration project, Dr Theng Lee Chong, says households contribute the largest portion of food waste, followed by night and wet markets, food courts and restaurants, hotels, and the food and beverage (F&B) industry.

He believes that a stringent, rather than the carrot-and-stick approach will reduce the amount of disposed food scraps.

“Regulations should be introduced, particularly in the F&B industry. In Japan, the F&B industry is subject to the Food Recycling Law. Even though the law focuses on food waste rather than food wastage, it still helps reduce food wastage indirectly, as the F&B industry needs to comply with a regulated food reduction and recycling rate.”

Dr Theng says awareness of the importance of food waste management in Malaysia is low, but adds that he has seen an improvement in recent years.
“Some hotels have started to think of alternatives to throwing away edible food. The first food bank I developed with the Petaling Jaya City Council tries hard to get hotels’ participation. Some restaurant operators advise customers to order less food, as well as provide containers so that customers can bring home leftovers,” says Dr Theng, who is also Association of Environmental Consultants and Companies of Malaysia deputy chairman.

He says some hypermarkets sell partly damaged vegetables and fruits at a lower price instead of dumping them into landfills.

Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) director-general Datuk Dr Sharif Haron says while legislation is effective in controlling food waste, Mardi continues to advocate the voluntary approach through awareness, persuasion and education, appealing to stakeholders in the F&B industry.

“We need to educate the public on how much value we put in food, and we are persuading large hypermarkets and supermarkets to donate soon-to-expire food to the needy and charities instead of disposing the items, which will end up in landfills.

“If the result remains poor after the campaign, we will need to go down the enforcement route. Laws will be implemented if necessary.”

Mardi and the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry are the coordinators of the MYsavefood programme, which promotes the reduction of food loss and food waste.

The programme is an awareness campaign by the MYsavefood network, which is part of global initiative SAVE FOOD by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

To date, more than 350 organisations and more than 50 countries have joined the SAVE FOOD initiative.

“Food loss and food waste have adverse effects on food security, the environment, natural resources, the cost of living and waste management. The response we are getting has been very positive,” says Sharif.

He says there is no difficulty in persuading stakeholders to be part of the network as many realise the importance of the initiative, but adds that he foresees challenges in securing commitment from all members to reduce food waste, as “the attitude and urgency is still very low”.

“The network needs to constantly update information that it gets from local and international sources on ways to reduce food loss and food waste. There are traditional or common perceptions and practices that need to be changed, such as ‘it’s better to serve more food than just enough’ and ‘if we think the food is not enough, usually, it is enough’.”

Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) president Cheah Swee Hee agrees with Sharif.

“As a business organisation, we can control daily hotel food wastage by producing less food, but it is different for catered functions and events. Sometimes, organisers anticipate a bigger crowd than the amount that turns up and they order excess food, which ends up being wasted. In these cases, we have no choice but to dispose of the extra food.

“We don’t allow the removal of excess food from the premises as we need to ensure the health and safety of our customers. The food may be in good condition when served on the premises, but it may be contaminated when it’s being transported because of wrong handling or storage.”

Cheah, who is also Asean Hotel and Restaurant Association president, says MAH has signed a memorandum with the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation and is working with the Food Aid Foundation in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme to see how food can be recycled and food wastage prevented in the hotel and catering industry.

Instead of imposing a ban or legislation, GCH Retail (M) Sdn Bhd, which manages the Giant, Cold Storage, Market Place by Jasons and Mercato supermarkets, believes that the government can provide incentives to organisations to give away surplus food to charities.

“We don’t believe in wasting food and support any effort for food surplus to be placed in the hands of the hungry, as well as contribute to reducing damage to the environment by recycling organic waste,” says GCH Retail corporate affairs director Roseta Mohd Jaafar.

“Like other food retailers, we have small amounts of food that are no longer fit to be sold, but are suitable to be eaten. We have found a partner with which we work to give away surplus food to charitable organisations. We are in the final stages of announcing our CSR programme to reduce food wastage.”

The limited practice of turning food waste into compost or animal feed is also to blame for the large volume of food in landfills.

Sogo (KL) Department Store Sdn Bhd managing director Datuk Andrew Lim Tatt Keong says authorities should get more F&B stakeholders involved in composting food waste and appoint a coordinating agency to transport the compost, to recycle it for use as crop fertiliser.

“Sogo KL sends food waste to Penang to be composted. In Penang, our main store, Gama, is actively composting. Penang has between 60 and 70 compost machines in schools, government agencies, departmental stores and factories, and there is a logistics company ready to transport the compost and recycle it for use as fertiliser. This system is lacking in Kuala Lumpur, as each company has its own way of dealing with things and there’s no standard procedure.”