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Giving food waste a new lease of life

Food wastage by households and the food industry in Singapore rose 40% in the past 10 years, to around 809,800 tonnes in 2017. It's time to clean up our act.

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Growing tomato plants in a rooftop garden at One Tampines Hub. The true tipping point comes when food and retail enterprises across the board make food waste management a business priority that is built-in - both physically in business operation frameworks and strategically in business plans.

THE world is gradually transitioning from a linear to a circular economy, as we move towards a new economic model of collaborative consumption.

Along with this paradigm shift, the "take-make-waste" linear consumption model of traditional industries is quickly falling out of favour with the proponents of a new circular economy globally wherein the traditional dynamics of supply and demand are fundamentally transformed. For good reason, a change is necessary. The world now produces in excess of a billion tonnes of garbage every year, much of which goes into landfill and incineration if not exported and recycled.

Ensuring that industries make their output restorative in design is now crucial to sustaining economic growth without putting our environment in jeopardy.

THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY OF FOOD

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With the festive season around the corner, it is perhaps timely to discuss the often-overlooked issue of food waste management. In a waste audit conducted in 2017, the National Environment Agency (NEA) found that more than half of food waste generated by Singapore households could have been avoided if people adopted a more prudent approach towards managing their food.

According to the United Nations, some 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced in the world is wasted every year. In Singapore alone, food waste has risen 40 per cent over the past 10 years, from 568,000 tonnes disposed by households and the food industry in 2008 to around 809,800 tonnes in 2017. This made up 23 per cent of total waste disposed of in Singapore in 2017, with only 16 per cent recycled.

The good news is food waste management can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, because the treatment of food waste, unlike metals or plastics, is much less complex, as there are no special treatments required to process food waste.

In fact, effective food waste management is a fundamental aspect behind the circular economy of food. The idea is that taking food waste through a value-extracting biodegradation process, which closes nutrient loops and regenerates the biosphere by increasing the amount of nutrients recycled, gives life to new generations of plants and animals in an ecological food chain.

While there is a variety of food waste management solutions in the market to choose from, common barriers such as the limited space and availability of recycling facilities, transportation costs associated with moving waste, and the complexities of collecting and segregating food waste, have largely inhibited the wider adoption of waste management today.

For every food company that is responsibly maximising the utility cycles of its produce and reducing its environmental wastage, there exist many others which are making a wasteland out of their unused output.

On a global level, this is a major concern as the United Nations has made halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, by 2030 as its key development goals of ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.

In Singapore, reducing food waste is part of our core initiatives towards a zero-waste nation, a key focus area of our Sustainable Singapore Blueprint.

There are multiple factors that we need to consider in order to eliminate food waste, from minimising food wastage at source from agriculture and optimising supply chain management to transforming the consumer mindset.

The true tipping point comes when food and retail enterprises across the board make food waste management a business priority that is built-in - both physically in business operation frameworks and strategically in business plans.

To this end, it is heartening to see that many retail establishments in Singapore have started to incorporate food waste management into their daily operations.

For example, local grocery chain NTUC FairPrice in 2014 developed a food waste reduction framework to engage community and partners through enhancing internal processes, public education, and partnerships such as its partnership with Food from the Heart. It has also developed a Food Waste Index in Singapore to track and sustain food waste reduction efforts, which helped to raise greater public awareness of food waste.

Using another approach of recycling food waste, two hawker centres in Ang Mo Kio and Tiong Bahru have also piloted a food waste recycling system that converts food waste into either compost/fertiliser or non-potable water for general washing and cleaning.

THROUGH THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

Aside from retail establishments, real estate developers and facility managers can also play a crucial role in influencing the adoption of sustainability measures by the occupants of their developments.

For instance, landlords are now introducing the concept of a "green lease", which incorporates various sustainability measurements into tenancy agreements and collectively boosting the green performance of the building. Building owners are working with tenants on the waste segregation requiring space planning and training of tenant staff for effective waste segregation.

When it comes to food waste management, a developer can make a significant difference in helping tenants manage food waste from the get-go. For instance, businesses and building managers may find it difficult to manage food waste due to logistical problems such as a lack of space to house waste management equipment. This may be addressed if a food waste processing system was incorporated into a building infrastructure at its design stage.

In fact, shopping malls such as Parkway Parade and Jem have in recent years adopted on-site waste management systems such as composting or anaerobic biodigesters that convert the food waste into compost for landscaping purposes or water for non-potable use.

Commercial and industrial premises such as hotels, F&B outlets, schools and even government buildings have recognised the need to reduce their environmental impact, and many of them are already utilising similar on-site food waste management solutions and practices.

No doubt more can be done by real estate developers and property managers to evaluate their approaches to waste management and lead from the ground up.

Short of limiting public consumption, resource regeneration is the nexus between a circular economy and a zero-waste nation. To this end, initiatives have already begun to educate and create awareness about sustainable living that can be adopted in stages, particularly in homes, schools, workplaces and F&B establishments where food waste is most common.

Ultimately, to advance towards a resource-efficient circular economy, governments, businesses and consumers can collaborate to make a concerted effort towards extending the utility cycle of our excess output and giving waste a new lease of life. Only then can we recreate our industrial ecology in a truly sustainable way that works for, and not against, our environment to become a zero-waste nation.

  • The writer is Head of Sustainability, Asia, at Lendlease .