In May 2015, G20 agriculture ministers met in Istanbul and highlighted food wastage as “a global problem of enormous economic, environmental and societal significance”. Beyond the immediate tragedy of depriving poor communities of food, food wastage leads to immeasurable economic losses for retail businesses and restaurants. (Factoid: the US business sector threw away some US$161 billion worth of food in 2015. Science has also discovered the link between climate change and greenhouse gases emitted from landfills – decaying food undoubtedly generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly methane.
In spite of these multifold consequences, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates sthat a third of the food produced for human consumption annually gets lost or discarded – that amounts to a whopping 1.3 billion tonnes of food! Unsurprisingly, most of the food wastage occurs in economically developed countries. In fact, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). The most common reasons for food wastage include discarding blemished produce or stale packaged food that do not reach the market by sell-by dates, overproduction and incorrect food preparation in restaurants as well as the personal decisions of consumers.
So how much food do we waste in Singapore? According to Singapore’s National Environment Agency, 788,600 tonnes of food were wasted in 2014. An infographic created by ZeroWaste SG (a local non-profit organisation) puts that huge amount of food into perspective – that comes up to about 140kg of food discarded per person or every person in Singapore throwing away two bowls of rice every single day! In fact, the same infographic shows that food waste in Singapore has increased by 50% from 2005 to 2014 – a rate of increase that would require a new incineration plant every 7-10 years and a landfill every 30-35 years, should it continue.
Thankfully, all is not lost. A survey conducted by Zero Waste SG, in conjunction with NUS’ Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme, found that 90% of consumers are concerned about food waste generated by F&B companies. The same survey discovered that many respondents hoped F&B companies can do more to reduce food waste and were willing to support these companies in their respective reduction campaigns and efforts.
The Singapore government has also come on board by establishing the Inter-Ministry Committee on Food Security in 2012. The inter-agency taskforce was set up in response to the challenges to food wastage reduction and to find ways to reduce Singapore’s food security vulnerabilities. More importantly, the committee’s efforts on reducing food waste should be seen in the grand scheme of Singapore’s food security, where Singapore’s food security roadmap identifies food wastage reduction as a key supporting strategy in Singapore’s food security vision.
Cognisant of the worsening problem of food wastage in Singapore, the government has introduced a whole series of measures targeting different segments of society including manufacturers, redistribution organisations, F&B establishments, schools and other members of the public.
Just last November, the National Environment Agency (NEA) initiated a public education campaign on food wastage, which saw posters and educational videos being featured on digital and mobile media platforms, bus-stop shelters and on newspapers and television. The core message of the campaign focused on the costliness of wasting food as well as ways to reduce food wastage within the home. The Straits Times article also reports that the NEA has partnered with supermarkets and food outlets in putting up posters and table-top stickers within their premises to remind consumers not to waste food. This campaign was expanded to schools as well as community and grassroots organisations earlier this year.
Beyond the prevention of food wastage, NEA, together with the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), have undertaken two food waste recycling pilots in 2015. With an intended duration of two years, the first pilot focuses on on-site food waste segregation and treatment at hawker centres, which uses food waste recycling machine to convert food waste into compost or water. The second pilot aims to collect food waste at a district level before transporting it to an off-site treatment facility for co-digestion. These pilots are on top of NEA’s existing efforts in building up ground capabilities for food waste recycling. Other efforts include the agency’s 3R Fund which subsidises an organisation’s recycling projects up to a quantum of S$1 million, and encourages food manufacturers to embark in research and development to test-bed innovative food applications from food waste.
Universities in Singapore have also jumped onto the bandwagon of reducing food wastage in vastly different ways. Three engineering students from the Nanyang Technological University designed an award-winning mobile application – Food Basket – which allows users to “track their groceries…suggest recipes for items before they expire [and even allow users] to trade food items amongst themselves through an in-app marketplace. The trio’s innovation clinched the top prize in Shell’s Ideas360 competition last year and put Singapore on world map for coming up with creative solutions to the global challenge of food wastage.
Meanwhile, their friends in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information have taken to raising public awareness of food wastage in Singapore. As part of their Final Year Project in 2013, four final-year students came together to investigate the main causes of food wastage amongst young working adults in Singapore before coming up with eight mantras targeted to help food retailers and consumers reduce food wastage. Endearingly dubbed as makan mantra, the press release reports, the team’s cause have resonated with Asia Square mall and the Singapore Environment Council, garnering the support of at least 11 F&B operators who will be adopting the eight mantras in their operations. As part of their campaign, the students took to the streets of the nation’s bustling Central Business District to raise awareness of their cause for a week, culminating in Makan Day in March 2013 – a “forum and feast event [which presents] a platform for constructive discussions [on the] future solutions of food wastage”.
Not to be outdone, a promising startup team from the Singapore Management University (SMU) recently bagged the prize of The Most Innovative Startup in the NTU Ideasinc Challenge 2015 with DingGo. DingGo’s innovation of a mobile application allows merchants to reach out to users in their immediate proximity of great deals for food, entertainment and retail. The application’s soft launch was dubbed a “socially green initiative” by the SMU publication, alerting the SMU community of leftover food catered for various campus events before the food turns bad or gets discarded. As of mid-October 2015, DingGo has managed to prevent at least 120 kg of food from being wasted.
In this podcast episode, we interview university students from the National University of Singapore at a food wastage campus roadshow to get more insights into the challenges involved, ideas and current initiatives on a ground-up, as well as institutional level. Warm thanks go to the NUS Students Against Violation of the Earth (SAVE) environmental group and random students for obliging in our amatuerish podcast-ing techniques.
We also conducted a survey to garner insights from students on the level of food wastage from different campuses. We looked broadly at their degree of concern (or lack of) on the issue, their perception of the underlying challenges behind food wastage on campus, as well as their current good practices and desired campus initiatives.
Here’s what the students had to say.
- Donate leftover food from school cafeterias and dining halls to food banks for redistribution
University of Maryland students started a food donation initiative in 2010, delivering cafeteria leftovers to local shelters and food pantries . Modest in origin, the Food Recovery Network has since expanded to 182 chapters across the United states and saved almost 1.2 million tonnes of food (as of 30 March 2016).
- Implement composting programs to recycle leftovers
University of California, Davis is so big on food recycling that as of 2009, 98% of all UCD’s food waste was being composted. In fact, as the blog post finds, its food recycling scheme was so successful that the students collect even the food waste in their rooms in the Bucket Program initiative. In tandem with other UC Davis sustainability schemes, student-led initiative – Project Compost – collects 2000 pounds of compostable material a week (more than just food, we think) for use in community gardens.
- Display anti-food wastage posters and slogans prominently in dining areas
A study by Beloit College’s Psychology department found that displaying posters and slogans encouraging students not to waste food led a 6.8% reduction in food waste in the campus’ main cafeteria. The reduction, the study found, resulted after these posters and slogans were displayed for only a short period of two weeks!
- Develop community gardens for students to be involved in
The Harvard Community Garden is designed to be ‘a space that is both beautiful and productive’, to bring together members of the community to raise awareness about the critical role that food plays in the environment and our health. Started in the spring of 2009, the undergraduate-staffed Garden has since built the raised beds and greenhouses and grown hundreds of pounds of produce. It hopes to achieve its goal of engaging the community in the issues of urban farming and sustainable living practices by offering regular community work days, food demonstrations and tastings, educational activities for schools and groups, educational materials such as recipes and curriculum, as well as ongoing lectures about food issues.
- Monitor the menu in the dining halls and tailor it according to student preferences
Getting the food right is fundamental to cutting waste, according to David Leake, catering manager at Didcot Girls’ school. He estimates that he has cut food waste by around 75% over two years by keeping a close eye on what sells, to make sure he is serving food people want, and using the previous week’s sales as a guide to how much to order. Some may think that pandering to students’ tastes to reduce waste will make it synonymous with less healthy food. However, from Leake’s experience, using quality produce and cooking fresh meals makes healthy choices more appealing.
- Use smaller plates or serve smaller portions in campus eateries
To encourage students to take only what they are able to eat, Western Michigan University has continued to use 9” plates at its self-serve dining halls even as the standard plate size has increased. Students are welcome to help themselves to additional portions anytime! Something else vendors can do is to serve smaller portions and promote trayless dining to reduce food waste. Just as what University of California, Los Angeles is doing, this should see students waste less food.
- Ask students about preferred serving size
Instead of counting on students to request for less rice or more noodles, vendors can proactively ask if the amount of rice or noodles in a dish is adequate. Such prompts while ordering give the students some time to rethink the amount of food they can complete. Making this change is simple and does not require purchase of new utensils. All that is required is a smile and readiness to adjust serving sizes!
- Avail variable options for portion size when ordering food and charge accordingly
Vendors can consider offering small, medium or large portion sizes for its dishes instead of the usual standardized serving. A study by Harvard Business School found that up to a third of restaurant patrons, when asked, would readily downsize the portions of their meal – regardless whether a discount was offered!
- Provide option to takeaway unfinished food after eating
There are students who rush for lessons and cannot complete their meals in time despite remaining hungry. Imagine if they could purchase a takeaway container or rent a bento box to store unfinished food for an hour before resuming their meals after lessons. Vendors could provide complimentary boxes for rent exclusively for patrons and remind them to return the boxes and cutlery the next day.
- Sell food at a discount later in the day:
Having excess ingredients prepared but facing slow demand for dishes post-lunch? Vendors could consider reducing the prices of your dishes towards the end of the day. Time it at the right moment and this win-win situation ensures that consumers get to enjoy cheaper dishes with ingredients remaining fresh while vendors do not have to worry about the prepared ingredients turning to waste. This is why supermarkets slash prices on selected food items later in the day.
All images used were exclusively and lovingly created for this project. These bite-sized [hurhur] comics were meant to depict the typical activities taking place on campus that could result in food wastage or a reduction of it.
- Learn more about where your food comes from
Markus gains better awareness and appreciation of Singapore’s food sources by taking a field trip to the local farm
Take advantage of the flexible time that you have in University to visit some of Singapore’s farms. Through these farm visits, we can learn more about our precious food sources and the hard work involved in producing them! Timely reminders are needed for a better appreciation of the food we eat, so that we will waste less food thoughtlessly.
- Plan ahead of time
If you know that you have back-to-back classes and meetings, plan ahead of time and pack a quick bite from your canteen or home. Eating at regular intervals is important since there is a high tendency to over-order and overeat when your blood sugar is too low. When organizing gatherings or catering for events, go for the 85% rule. People tend to eat less at events where there is attendance in large numbers.
- Storing food can help you waste less food
Living on campus can mean that it is harder to store your food well to preserve the quality of your food. A good first step would be to implement a mandatory system in your hostel for all food in the refrigerator to be placed in tagged ziplock bags, to keep a clean and hygienic environment. When storing leftovers, refrigerate them within two hours of purchasing and keep them in airtight, leakproof clean containers. As far as possible, keep fruits in the refrigerator for maximum freshness. Food that can be kept longer without spoilage will reduce food wastage.
- Learn to say No!
Sometimes we are too lazy to reject side dishes and fruits that come with our food, when we know we won’t eat them. Learn to be proactive and reject them, rather than just throwing them away! Also, learn to politely decline ordering food when your friend jios (Singapore slang for ‘invites’) you to join in for supper.
- Implement your own hostel food recycling projects
Have ideas on how to further reduce our food waste on campus? Feel free to share them and leave a comment below!
Featured image: Brenda needs to have more mindfulness about rejecting food that she doesn’t plan on eating (Comic by Florence Chow using StoryboardThat).
All comics were created using StoryboardThat.
 Makan is the Malay word for ‘eat’ and colloquially appropriated in Singapore’s multi-racial and multicultural context.