Food Waste for Thought

Where there is food, there will be food waste. At least that is how it seems to be in Singapore- the world second most food secure country. Sad to say, food waste appears to be a little too easy to generate and eventually to get used to. But similar to other types of waste, discarded food can be thought of as a resource if we only manage it appropriately and creatively.

Recently, food waste recycling is taking root in several locations in Singapore especially in institutions, food courts and green events. The food collected in food bins are mainly used for composting into fertilizers. For example, Quan Fa Farm, a local organic farm, collaborated with event organisers in order to compost the food waste generated during the events in its farms. To speed up the process of food composting, Food Digesters which can churn large volume of food waste have also been installed in several locations such as the food court at Our Tampines Hub.

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These Food Digesters can generate fertilizer from food waste within 24 hours of its disposal. Fertilizers are given out to residents in the neighbourhood to promote gardening especially of edible plants. The same initiative is also being attempted in primary schools in the hope of teaching children the potential of food waste recycling and even the forgotten skill of gardening. But the Food Digester will consume a lot of energy. At the same time, there is comparatively little demand or need for the fertilizers produced, especially considering the quantity of food waste and the infrequency of gardening practices. Turning the problem around, can food waste management produce instead of consume energy?

Food waste can be made into biofuel through fermentation and the biofuel can then the burnt to generate electricity or for other uses. An interesting purpose of biofuel is to cool the two conservatories in Gardens by the Bay.

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To house large diversity of species that come from non-tropical regions, the conservatories at Gardens By the Bay are cooled with horticultural waste.

This is also known as Waste To Energy technology, which is a general strategy to save landfill space and generate renewable energy from low cost materials such as food waste. But during fermentation, the food waste decomposes and general large amount of greenhouse gases and the same happens when the fuel is burnt. So even if biofuel generated in this way can be considered renewable, it is not actually clean and can perpetuate the problem of climate change no less than conventional sources of energy.

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For every product that made it to the market, many others are discarded because of cosmetic filtering.

Let’s take a step back. Management of food waste in this manner is underlined by one critical assumption: food waste are not food and has to be treated differently from it. On some occasions, this may be true but most of the time food waste is perfectly good to eat. A survey found that a majority in Singapore would rather throw away ‘ugly’ food than eat them. This attitude drives cosmetic filtering of food at every stage of the food supply chain so that tons of food are discarded everyday simply because they do not look the way we think they should. On top of that, it is almost an expectation that event caterers to provide more food than what the guests are likely to finish. But clearly “the more, the merrier” does not work here.

It takes a lot of energy to produce, package and transport. Today agriculture already uses 70% of world freshwater and accounts for 25% of global carbon emission. In the words of Dr. M Sanjayan from Conservation International, “[we] are trashing the earth to produce food that nobody eats” and we continue to do so because our population is increasing. Food waste from cosmetic filtering and over-supply are still food, and to treat them otherwise is almost cruel when some still go to bed hungry.

In Singapore, several non-profit organisations try to put these avoidable waste to better use. For example, Willing Hearts collects food that has been rejected after cosmetic filtering but are still in good quality. These are cooked in their soup kitchen by volunteers before distribution to the underprivileged. Food Bank is another organisation that collects excess food from events and other organisations, re-channeling these unwanted food to those who need them.

The affordability and availability of food in Singapore are easy to take for granted for most people in Singapore. But we shouldn’t have to wait until food is scarce before we learn the importance of food waste minimization and management.

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