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Food waste is a pervasive problem all around the world, not just among developed nations. Currently, over 800 million people are suffering from severe malnutrition, a shocking thought when one third of all the food that is intended for human consumption is wasted or lost. Food waste negatively affects the environment, the economy, food security and nutrition. Successfully dealing with the issue remains a great challenge for the coming years. Here are 25 facts about food waste that you need to know. 

  1. Roughly one-third of the food produced that is intended for human consumption every year- around 1.3 billion tons and valued at USD$1 trillion- is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people. 
  2. Food waste ends up wasting a quarter of our water supply in the form of uneaten food. That’s equated to USD$172billion in wasted water.
  3. Taking into account of all the resources used to grow food, food waste uses up to 21% of freshwater, 19% of our fertilisers, 18% of our cropland, and 21% of our landfill volume.
  4. The water used to produce the food wasted could be used by 9 billion people at around 200 litres per person per day. 
  5. The food currently wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people, in Latin America 300 million people and in Africa 300 million people. 
  6. Annual per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115kgs a year for Europeans and North Americans, while in south and southeastern Asia, it is 6-11kgs. 
  7. Food loss and waste accounts for about 4.4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. 
  8. If food loss was a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the US.
  9. Developed and developing countries waste or lose roughly the same amount of food every year, at 670 and 630 million tons respectively. Around 88 million tons of this is in the EU alone.
  10. Breaking it down by food group, losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops and fruit and vegetables, 20% for oil seed and meat and dairy and 35% for fish. 
  11. If 25% of the food currently being lost or wasted globally was saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million people around the world. 
  12. By mid-century, the world population will hit 9 billion people. By then, food production must be increased by 70% from today’s levels to meet this demand. 
  13. Food losses translate into lost income for farmers and higher prices for consumers, giving us an economic incentive to reduce food waste. 
  14. In developing countries, 40% of losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries, more than 40% of losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. 
  15. At the retail level, large quantities of food are wasted because of an emphasis on appearance- in fact, half of all produce is thrown away in the US because it is deemed too “ugly” to eat; this amounts to 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables. 
  16. An area larger than China and 25% of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food that is never eaten.
  17. In China, more than 35 million tonnes of food – equivalent to about 6% of the country’s total food production – are lost or wasted in the country annually. The food loss primarily occurs in restaurants and households as Chinese culture sees hosts order more food rather than less to show hospitality to their guests.
  18. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aims to halve per-capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses. 
  19. Promotions in supermarkets may lead to more food waste; we may buy more food that we don’t necessarily need if we think we are getting more for our money. 
  20. According to a survey conducted by Respect Food, 63% of people don’t know the difference between the “use by” and “best before” dates. Foods with “use by” dates are perishable and must be eaten before the given date. Foods with “best before” dates can be eaten after the given date, but it won’t be at its best quality. 
  21. Because of quality standards that rely too much on appearance, crops are sometimes left unharvested and rot. 
  22. In Europe, 40-60% of fish caught are discarded because they do not meet supermarket quality standards.
  23. In the US, organic waste is the largest source of methane emissions, which is a greenhouse gas that has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
  24.  Emerging new internet trends such as “Mukbang”, where personalities and social media influencers livestream videos of themselves binge-eating, are leading to excess food waste.
  25. If we stopped throwing food away, we can save the equivalent of 17 metric tonnes of CO2, which can be the environmental equivalent of keeping five cars off the roads in the UK.

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These facts tell us that we need to reduce the amount of food waste that we produce or at the very least, learn how to reuse leftover food to feed humans and animals or to produce energy and compost in order to close nutrient cycles. We hope that these facts about food waste have inspired you to rethink your consumption habits!

With sustainable and plant-based diets becoming more normalised, attention has been given to food waste and how to reduce its impact on the environment; the handling of food and its associated greenhouse gas emissions are not far behind those of the energy and transportation industries. 

Food Waste Statistics

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd-largest contributor of carbon emissions, after the US and China. In terms of area, food waste would be as big as India and Canada combined. These figures are staggering considering that 11% of the global population is undernourished. 

The UN estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, a third of the world’s total production. According to the IPCC, the loss and waste of food was responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2016. Food waste also leads to a waste of the resources (water, energy, labour, capital and land) used to grow, transport and package the food. The FAO estimates that food loss and waste costs developed nations USD $680 billion and developing nations $310 billion annually. 

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Earth.org food waste by region
A graph showing the waste per person per year in kgs by region (Source: FAO)

While developed and developing countries waste similar quantities of food (650 million tonnes per year), in developing countries, 40% of the losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries, 40% of the losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. Solutions depend on the stage these losses occur at; for example, developed countries need to focus on better retail practices and changing consumer behaviour, while developing countries need to focus on improving storage and distribution infrastructure as well as providing financial and technical support for better harvesting techniques. 

Food Waste Solutions

A number of innovative solutions already exist for countries looking to tackle food waste. In a joint collaboration with the company Too Good To Go, Unilever, Arla Foods and Carlsberg have added a new packaging label, ‘often good after’ directly after the ‘best-before date’ on certain foods to inform consumers about expiry dates versus best-before dates. The latter is meant to be an indicative measure requiring consumers to judge whether food is expired based on sight and smell. This new practice is being launched in the Nordics and will expand to other markets provided legislation allows it.

Technology in Papua New Guinea is being used to help local farmers’ livestock meet internationally-recognised standards. A digital tracking system helps verify important information about pigs like pedigree and what food and medicines they have been fed, giving importers and consumers greater purchasing confidence and reducing the risk of food being rejected and disposed of. This digital system was designed by the FAO and the International Telecommunications Unit (ITU); the broadband network is being improved locally so that farmers can update records easily on their subsidised phones.

Insignia Technologies has colour-changing tags that can be applied to products at the point of manufacture. The time-temperature indicators change the colour of the label according to the shelf life of the product, allowing restaurants to prioritise products that are about to get spoilt, thus reducing waste. 

UK academics are developing paper-based, smartphone-linked spoilage sensors for meat and fish packaging. They cost less than £0.02 each and are non-toxic and biodegradable, helping to detect spoilage and reduce food waste for supermarkets and consumers.

Global food waste initiative Winnow has developed software that tracks food being thrown away in kitchens. By using this software, businesses can record what’s being thrown away, assess the cost of the discarded food and get a detailed breakdown of each day’s waste to better manage their menus and reduce waste. 

Government interventions to reduce food loss and waste could include providing incentives or financial aid to smaller farmers and producers so that they can adopt more efficient techniques and practices. Organisations like the World Food Program help small farmers connect to people in need and also provide the necessary technologies for more efficient storage and distribution to prevent spoilage.

Local governments can support the set up of organisations like the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the UK that develops actions and milestones to help UK retailers and brands halve food waste by 2030. It provides guidance on labelling, packaging and storage and conducts and publishes surveys of businesses on their progress.

Updating legislation around labelling requirements so that the best-before and use-by dates are clearer to consumers, as well as ensuring solutions like the ‘often good after’ concept is brought in to markets, will also help.

Governments should also educate consumers on reducing food waste. The highest carbon footprint of wastage occurs at the consumption phase (37% of total), whereas consumption accounts for 22% of total food wastage; one kilogram of food that is wasted further along the supply chain will have a higher carbon intensity than at earlier stages.

Earth.org contribution of commodities to carbon footprint
A graph showing the contribution of commodities to carbon footprint and food waste (Source: FAO).

Cereals, vegetables and meats have intense carbon footprints and contribute heavily to food waste. It is vital to, in the case of meat, minimise consumption, while for cereals and vegetables, optimise how they are managed and consumed to reduce wastage.   

Project Drawdown, a global research organisation that identifies, reviews and analyses the most viable solutions to the climate crisis, ranked solutions to global warming and found that cutting down on food waste could have a similar impact on reducing emissions over the next three decades as onshore wind turbines. If small and large businesses, governments and consumers work together, about 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases can be prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

Other things that consumers can do to reduce their food waste is to simply buy less food- plan your meals to ensure that you only buy what you need. Be sure to store food correctly; some tips include keeping the refrigerator below 5°C, storing cooked foods on shelves above raw foods and storing food in sealed containers. Finally, freeze your leftovers so that they last a bit longer.

America is the global leader of food waste, which has catastrophic environmental, financial and social fallout. With growing urgency to tackle these issues, how can this problem be solved? 

Food Waste in America

In the US, an estimated 30% to 40% of the total food supply ends up as waste. A large portion of this occurs at the consumer level, with 43% of food waste being generated in people’s homes. A further 40% of the waste comes from consumer-facing businesses such as supermarkets and restaurants, while the remaining waste occurs on farms (16%) and during processing (2%). 

This food waste accounts for between an estimated USD$161 billion and $218 billion wasted in America each year, with the bulk of this financial stress falling on consumers who pay higher prices than those at the sourcing or wholesale stages. Moreover, this food waste continues while, according to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly 12% of American households (about 15 million) “were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2017, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” 

What’s more, the food wasted is often edible, healthy produce and the amount generated is more than enough to tackle a problem that has no place in a developed country. 

Food waste is the single largest component of US landfills, accounting for 22% of municipal solid waste (MSW). This takes up land but also breaks down to create significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that, for the first two decades after its release, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Additionally, food waste has serious environmental impacts long before it reaches a landfill, with around 21% of all freshwater in America going to the production of food that will be wasted, along with 19% of all fertiliser and 18% of all cropland. 

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What Causes Food Waste in America

At the production stage, waste before harvest in America can be caused by economic factors like a drop in demand for a certain product or a lack of labour. There are also natural causes such as weather, disease and pests. The largest cause for waste on farms post-harvest is culling, whereby produce is discarded based on quality and appearance, such as its size, colour, weight, blemishes and sugar content.

At retail stores, food waste in America is caused by overstocked displays of fresh produce for marketing purposes, the demand for perfection (which also leads to culling), oversized packs of produce and the need to have fresh goods (such as those from in-store bakeries) available until closing. Food outlets face similar issues, with the need to stock far more fresh produce than they can sell in order to offer an abundant menu for customers.

When it comes to consumer food waste, the largest source of waste, the main problem is a lack of information. First, about the amount that the average American household actually needs to buy. The “abundance” issue seen in stores and restaurants ripples into homes, where people buy more than they need and place a lower value on it. Second, there is significant confusion over sell-by, use-by and best-before labels that are frequently found on packaging. Not knowing what these mean, and relying on them rather than our senses and experience, leads American households to regularly waste perfectly good food.

What is Being Done to Tackle Food Waste in America 

America has begun to tackle the food waste problem, and the USDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency banded together in 2015 with the goal of cutting food waste in America in half by 2030. They set out to do this by creating and following their own Food Recovery Hierarchy, which outlines the most effective ways to address the problem of food waste.

This inverted pyramid follows the same structure as other waste management hierarchies, whereby the first and most effective option is prevention. With food waste, this can be achieved by shifting  attitudes to only purchase what is needed. For retailers and restaurants, this means not having an abundance of produce on display or a vast menu that requires excessive stock. For consumers, this means writing grocery lists and recognising how much a household actually consumes. 

If an excess of food is produced at any point along the supply chain, the next step in the hierarchy is to ensure that this is distributed to where it is needed, rather than wasted. This is currently being done in America by organisations that are teaming up with farmers to pick and distribute crops that would otherwise rot in the field, as well as at the retail stage through cooperation with food banks, soup kitchens and other distribution centres.

If food can’t be recovered, then there must be better food waste management. This means using food waste for animal feed, industrial processing and composting, which can then be directed to agriculture and back into the food supply chain. 

These steps are just the beginning of a journey to tackle food waste in America, but they are proof that something is being done. As individuals and companies continue to take action to limit their impact, the social, financial and environmental issues associated with food waste in America can finally be addressed. 

China has launched a campaign targeting food waste in the country, called the “Clean Plate Campaign.” In a speech, President Xi Jinping called the amount of food wasted by the country “shocking and distressing” and added that COVID-19 had brought more attention to the problem. However, some citizens are concerned about the level of control and surveillance this campaign will bring. How will it work?

In his speech, Xi called for strengthening legislation, supervision and long-term measures as well as public education to “resolutely stop food waste.” According to a 2015 report by the China Academy Science and partner, up to 18 million tonnes of food a year is wasted in large cities, enough to feed 30 to 50 million people a year. However, the directive contains no real specifics, leaving it up to officials and citizens across the country to engineer solutions. 

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Food Sustainability Index, per capita, China wastes about 72.4 pounds of food a year. This is not as bad as other countries, like Australia, who disposes of 168 pounds of food annually per capita, and the US, who tosses out 209 pounds annually. However, considering the country’s population of 1.4 billion people, this is a problem that has huge ramifications for the planet. 

China is also facing a growing obesity problem, having overtaken the US to have the greatest number of obese people in the world in 2016.

This campaign is not new. China has been trying for years to cut the waste generated by citizens. In 2013, the “Operation Empty Plate” campaign was launched, but this targeted lavish feasts held by officials rather than the public.

In mid-2019, Shanghai introduced regulations forcing individuals and companies to correctly recycle their food waste. Citizens faced fines for non-compliance or penalties to their social credit rating, which affects economic and social prospects. This has since been rolled out to other cities. 

This new campaign is controversial in that its proposed methods of enforcement involve closely monitoring individuals’ eating habits- and publicly shaming them for overeating. 

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Following the president’s address, the Wuhan Catering Industry Association urged restaurants in the city to limit the number of dishes served to diners, implementing a system where groups must order one dish less than the number of diners. This system has been dubbed “N-1.”

The cities Xianning and Xinyang, in the provinces of Hubei and Henan respectively, have also proposed implementing the N-1 system, which has faced criticism by some online for being “too rigid.” 

Shanghai is encouraging citizens to report each other if they see someone eating too much or wasting food, however punishments for this offense have not been specified. 

Further, a district city in Harbin city in Heilongjiang province, has reportedly set up a “food waste exposure system” for government canteens, installing cameras near food collection bins where workers dispose of their food. Those who are caught on camera with food waste more than three times will be named and shamed, with footage of their crimes played on TV screens across the canteens. State media has also criticised livestreamers who film themselves eating large amounts of food. 

In Chongqing, the Federation of Industry and Commerce issued a statement saying that they will set up LED screens with prompts to “establish a frugal consumption reminder system,” as well as measures to “supervise consumers to eat frugally.” One restaurant in southern Hunan province even asked diners to weigh themselves before entering to help them choose appropriate meals. 

Changing Customs 

In China, it is seen as polite to order more than the amount needed; empty plates are sometimes seen as a sign of a bad host, showing that an insufficient amount of food was ordered for guests. 

Food is also quite a sensitive topic in China, where a famine during the 1950s and 1960s saw 45 million people starve to death. Being able to eat what they want and when they want is seen as a sign of China’s new wealth. Further, when the government withdrew food vouchers in 1993, it was a sign that food shortages were over, and people could eat as they wished. This new-found wealth was displayed through luxury dishes such as shark’s fin and bird’s nest soup. 

The renewed focus on food waste comes after the COVID-19 panic and the severe effect it had on the country’s agricultural sector. Unable to get produce to the market, some farmers had to contend with fields of rotting produce. 

Meanwhile, weeks of mass flooding along the Yangze River decimated crops, contributing to rising food prices and forcing the government to release tens of millions of tons of food from government storage. 

Food security has always been important to China. As much as 20% to 30% of China’s grains are imported, according to estimates. 

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. It means that for the rest of the year, we are expanding our ecological deficit by using up local resources and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 22, three weeks later than 2019’s date of July 29 as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, meaning that humanity consumed less resources than last year. 

According to research conducted by Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation, COVID-19- related lockdowns resulted in a 9.3% reduction in humanity’s ecological footprint compared with the same period last year. 

However, we would still need 1.6 Earths to keep up with our current use of ecological resources. 

While Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, called this year’s data “encouraging,” he called for further progress to be made “by design, not by disaster.” 

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CEO of Global Footprint Network Laurel Hanscom adds, “Sustainability requires that both ecological balance and people’s well-being be ensured over the long-term, therefore this year’s sudden Ecological Footprint contraction cannot be mistaken for progress. This year more than ever, Earth Overshoot Day highlights the need for strategies that increase resilience for all.” 

According to the research, Australia’s biocapacity (the capacity of a given biologically productive area to generate an ongoing supply of renewable resources and to absorb its spillover wastes) dropped to nearly half during its 2019/ 2020 forest fire season, making the country run a biocapacity deficit for the first time in its recorded history. In contrast, Scotland- with its extensive decarbonisation strategy and significant biocapacity assets- is about to close its long-held biocapacity deficit. 

The three-week shift between Earth Overshoot Day 2019 and 2020 represents the largest single-year shift since global overshoot began in the 1970s. Increasing global consumption saw the date arriving in July for the first time in 2019. 

Wackernagel days, “We’re using up the future to pay for the present. We’ve only got one planet and that’s not going to change. We’ve got a very simple choice, one-planet prosperity or one-planet misery.” 

The research organisation says that the resilience of companies, countries and cities depend on the ‘sound management of ecological resources’. To do this, we need to alter the way we produce our food, the way we move around, how many children we have and how much land we protect for wildlife. Reducing our overall carbon footprint by 50% would move the date back 93 days. 

Regarding food, the systems currently in use consume 50% of Earth’s biocapacity; we need to reduce the carbon intensity of food and the impact of food production on biodiversity while improving public health. Cutting food waste in half would move Earth Overshoot Day 13 days. 

The cumulative ecological debt is now equivalent to 18 Earth years, meaning that it would take 18 years to reverse the damage from overuse of natural resources (assuming overuse is fully reversible). Global Footprint Network estimates that if we move the date by 5 days each year, humanity would be using less than one planet before 2050. 

Supermarket shelves around the world were emptied as people panic bought due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Singapore, this brought attention to the republic’s overreliance on food imports and its subsequent food security. Fortuitously, Singapore made plans in 2019 to reduce its dependence on food imports with its “30 by 30” vision, whereby 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs will be produced locally by 2030, up from less than 10% today. 

Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food supply, making it especially sensitive to any changes in the global agricultural landscape. Major importers include Malaysia, Brazil and Australia. When Malaysia announced its lockdown, many Singaporeans scrambled to supermarkets, fearing that imported food from Malaysia would suddenly be cut off. Even before COVID-19, the climate crisis already posed a threat to global food supply, negatively affecting crop yields. Additionally, the amount of fertile land in the world has fallen by 33% in 40 years, yet demand for food is expected to increase as the global population continues to rise and the affluence of developing countries grows. Hence, in times of crises, having a robust local food supply to fall back on can act as a buffer to cushion Singapore from any negative food supply shocks.

Nearly tripling local food production in 10 years seems like a daunting task, but Singapore has a robust plan to achieve this “30 by 30” vision. 

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The heightened production will be mainly focused on eggs, leafy vegetables, fruits and fish. To increase food production and achieve the “30 by 30” plan, Singapore needs to convert more spaces for urban farming. Land is a precious resource in Singapore, with 5.6 million people in an area of 721.5 km², even smaller than New York City. As of 2016, agriculture occupied 0.93% of Singapore’s land area. By creatively tapping into underused and integrated spaces, Singapore hopes to produce more in less space. Recent plans have revealed that urban farms will be developed on carpark rooftops and integrated into multi-purpose sites, one of which was initially an old school campus. Singapore Food Agency has also been collaborating with other agencies to open up more of Singapore’s southern waters for fish farms, expanding on the one that is currently in operation. 

Improving technologies to increase production efficiency is also key to ramp up food production. In the field of agri-tech, heavy research and development efforts are ongoing. At the micro level, researchers are working to discover high yield and resilient genetic species. By detecting the chemicals plants emit, researchers aim to detect their precise optimal growing conditions. At the macro level, knowing these exact conditions can help to engineer resource-efficient and productive farming systems that will raise yields as well. Many considerations will also be taken to ensure food safety, by creating new models and systems to detect and predict any safety hazards in these new foods. 

Having the infrastructure and technology in place and creating an economic environment that supports enterprises will be the next step in promoting growth in the agri-food sector. A pool of experts that are well-versed in the urban farming and food production industry can help form suitable industry regulations that will help to reduce compliance costs and ensure a high standard of food safety. Grants for high-efficiency farms such as the Agriculture Productivity Fund (AFP)’s Productivity Enhancement (PE) scheme will encourage farms to improve and upgrade their technology, while reducing business costs. To train a future network of knowledgeable and experienced professionals, Singapore has set up certified courses in urban agricultural technology and aquaculture in tertiary education institutions, as well as a SkillsFuture Programme, a subsidised skills upgrading programme for Singaporeans. 

Encouraging Singaporeans to Buy Local Produce

Most importantly, the work to increase local supply must also be met by an increase in consumer demand. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) aims to raise Singaporean’s demand for local food by raising awareness about the existence and benefits of buying homegrown food. Holding a ‘SG Farmers’ Market’ several times a year that features local farms and putting a logo on produce that marks it as homegrown are part of SFA’s plans to shine a spotlight and raise awareness of local produce.

In light of the pandemic, the government has introduced a SGD$30 million (USD$22 million) grant for local producers who can utilise high-efficiency farming systems and quickly raise their output. Producers may apply and submit their project proposals for this grant, named the 30×30 Express grant, which will help approved applicants cover up to 85% of the project costs. This is on top of the existing SGD$144 million (USD$118 million) in the Singapore Food Story R&D Program, that supports research in the agri-food sector.

Moving forward, one key way Singaporeans can help to achieve the “30 by 30” target is to support and buy from local producers, as said by Minister Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in Singapore. Singaporeans can also look forward to hearing more about new innovative developments as a result of the 30×30 Express grant, or a new urban farm sprouting up in their neighbourhood. 

Hong Kong lawmakers have abandoned a long-delayed bill on a mandatory waste disposal charging scheme, citing a lack of time to complete the legislative process, ending a decade-long campaign. Three bills had been ditched in the past few weeks due to time constraints.

The Hong Kong Municipal Solid Waste Charging Scheme

On June 22, members of the bills committee on the waste charging scheme in Hong Kong voted seven to four to shelve discussions for the bill, effectively abandoning it. According to government plans, the bill was expected to reduce solid waste by 40% on a per capita basis by 2022. 

Opposition lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung, a member of the bills committee, said, “This means total government failure in terms of environmental failure.” The committee reportedly had difficulties holding meetings during the year due to protests and the coronavirus pandemic that delayed face-to-face sessions. 

Secretary for the Environment, Wong Kam-sing says that the government will ‘do its best’ to reduce through other means despite the waste charging scheme bill being dumped. 

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He says. “The Environment Bureau is proactive in waste reduction in Hong Kong and our efforts will not stop here. We will continue our work in other areas, focusing on clean recycling, including food waste, paper and waste plastics.”

The proposed scheme would have seen residents disposing of waste in designated bags priced at an average of 11 HK cents (1.4 US cents) per litre. The average household would have paid between HKD$33 and $51 per month, depending on the amount of rubbish they produced. 

A joint statement by five environmental groups, including Green Peace, The Green Earth and Green Power, called the bill ‘stillborn’ and expressed frustration over the delays to the scheme. Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of The Green Earth, said that the government had missed a golden opportunity to pass the bill over the years, saying that it had to set the tone in driving Hong Kong’s environmental protection laws. 

The groups also made three recommendations to the government on initiatives to implement before the end of its current term in 2022, namely to improve the recycling system, reduce waste at the source by eliminating disposable tableware and packaging and reducing disposable packing in supermarkets, and resubmit the draft to implement the recycling and waste reduction policy to rebuild public confidence. 

The waste problem in Hong Kong is getting worse, with 2018 levels hitting the highest level since records began in 1991 with Hongkongers sending 1.53kgs of trash to landfills every day. In the same year, it was found that 31% of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong was food waste, the largest component of such waste. The abandoned bill aimed to reduce the average waste per capita to 0.8kgs per day. 

A recent investigative survey by local news outlet HK01 found that of 14 housing estates surveyed, nine were sending plastic bottles intended to be recycled to landfills. Some attribute this to the low value of plastics in Hong Kong; the price of recycled plastics has been in decline since 2018, reducing incentives for waste collectors to collect plastic. 

Featured image by: Wpcpey

Singapore produces vast amounts of food waste, threatening its resources and land availability. How can this problem be solved?

Food Wastage Facts in Singapore

A study by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) found that Singapore households throw away around 26 000 tonnes- or S$342 million- in unconsumed food annually. Food waste accounts for about 10% of the total waste generated in Singapore, but only 17% of this is recycled. The rest of it is disposed of at waste-to-energy plants for incineration.

The SEC says that this wastage is due to improper storage, purchasing patterns and food handling habits. It identifies major drivers of food loss further down the supply chain, which include poor disease and pest management, over-importation of food items and inadequate infrastructure.

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Of those surveyed in the study, about one third said they throw away 10% or more of uncooked and unconsumed food items per week.

The study also found that 342 000 tonnes of food is lost in Singapore before it reaches retail and consumers, 49% of this from the loss of fruits and vegetables. 

Singapore Environment Council Chairman Isabella Huang-Loh, says, “More can be done in an industrialised country like Singapore to reduce food loss. Down the chain, better coordination and raising awareness among food industries, retailers and consumers can go a long way to reduce food loss and waste.”

Singapore has implemented its Zero Waste Masterplan, which outlines the Republic’s strategies to build a sustainable and climate resilient nation. The campaign says that food waste is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore and that the amount of food waste generated has grown by 40% in the last decade. In 2018, the country generated 763 million kgs of food waste, making up half of the average 1.5kgs of waste disposed of by each household in Singapore daily. Rice, noodles and bread are the most commonly wasted food items.

Wasting food means that more food has to be sourced to meet demand, affecting food security since Singapore imports over 90% of its food supply. It also means that the Republic will need to build more waste disposal facilities, such as waste-to-energy plants and landfills for incineration ash, a difficult task for land-scarce Singapore. 

To conserve resources, food wastage must be minimised and unavoidable food waste must be treated, starting with avoiding wastage and excess food production (or re-distributing excess food) and then segregating food waste for recycling and treatment. Singapore is working on this issue through publicity and outreach programmes, where it educates consumers on how to adopt smart food purchasing, storage and preparation habits, as well as providing food manufacturers and retailers with handbooks to help them develop a food minimisation plan that suits them. Further, it is building up local research and development capabilities to discover innovative ways to recycle food waste.

What is Being Done?

In terms of legislation, the Resource Sustainability Act mandates that from 2024, large commercial and industrial food waste generators will be required to segregate food waste for treatment, including hotels and malls, as well as food storage warehouses manufacturers. Also, from 2021, developers of new developments which are expected to generate large amounts of food waste will be required to allocate space for on-site food waste treatments.

There is no shortage of potential solutions and it is vital that some of them, however novel, are tapped into. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world, generating about 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions, although some studies have this number at 11%. This issue is not location-specific, but an issue that affects every living thing on the planet and should therefore be seen as an urgent area to take action in.

With the largest population in the world, China has the most mouths to feed on the planet. Consequently, China generates more food waste than any other nation. How can this problem be solved?

More than 6%- or 35 million kgs– of the country’s total food production is lost before reaching consumers, in the household and warehouse storage, transport and processing sectors. There are 500 cities in China producing 50 tonnes of food waste every day. Bigger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, produce between 1 000 and 2 000 tonnes per day. With an ever-growing population and food security increasingly becoming more of a concern, it’s imperative to curb the amount of food waste that China is producing. 

The Problem with Food Waste

A report by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research and the China Academy Science found that in 2015, China wasted up to 18 million tonnes of food served in big cities, enough to feed 30 to 50 million people annually. This equates to roughly the population of South Korea in the same year.

Vegetables accounted for as much as 29% of the total waste occurring at the consumer level in the four cities surveyed- Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Lhasa- followed by staple food, like rice and noodles, and meat, representing 24% and 18% of the total respectively.

Chinese cities produce 25% of the world’s municipal solid waste, most of it food. Most of China’s food waste is either landfilled or burned; in 2017, municipal landfills accepted more than 152 metric megatonnes of urban waste, most of which was organic waste. 

With more than 2 000 landfills nearly full, Chinese cities have turned to waste incineration, which is extremely environmentally damaging. This waste generates considerable amounts of methane and every kg of landfilled municipal solid waste can release its equivalent weight of CO2. Incineration plants in China have nearly tripled in number since 2010, but they cannot easily burn wet food waste; Chinese incinerators struggle to burn urban solid waste because it contains up to 70% moisture content. 

The problem is also putting pressure on the country’s limited water, energy and land. 

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The Severity of Food Waste in China

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food loss in the harvesting stage is as high as 10% of total output. In the storage stage, about 8% of food stored in farmer households- over 20 billion kgs- is lost because of poor storage or drying facilities, the most common direct causes of such loss being insects, mold and birds. Over 7.5 billion kgs of the country’s grain is lost due to old and unsafe warehouses. 

In the transport sector, there is a shortage of specialised transport vehicles for grains. About a quarter of grains is transported in loose form, and because of scattering and leaking, around 5% of grains- more than 30 billion tonnes- is lost annually.

In the processing stage, more than 7.5 billion kgs is lost annually because of over-processing of foods like rice.

Reducing Food Waste in China: Moving Forward

Since 2010, the Chinese government has selected 100 different cities and given them an opportunity to explore alternative waste management systems. Restaurants will soon be charged a fee for the amount of food they produce, tracked by an online system by authorised collectors. This will boost on-site compost systems which will ease pressure on local landfills and incineration plants, but solutions must be delivered on a larger scale.

Thankfully, policies covering food waste have been rapidly emerging in recent years. In 2016, China amended its Solid Waste Law to improve oversight and transparency of waste generators, halt illegal dumping and promote recycling and reuse of wastes, including food.

Moving forward, policy makers should consider loss and waste reduction to be as important as increasing production. According to the FAO, the current policy system of agricultural subsidisation mainly includes price guarantees and subsidisation for staple crops, production materials, seeds and agricultural machinery, which leads to local governments focusing on crop production while paying little attention to the wastage in the supply chain. The region’s rate of food loss and waste in various stages of the supply chain should be assessed in addition to output, and incentives and subsidies should be based on both markers. 

The FAO also advocates for the implementation of a ‘Food Law’, whereby the management, pricing and penalisation for food loss and waste is enacted into law. There should also be increased investment in reducing food loss and waste in the form of the construction of new warehouses and special funds for storage, transport, processing technologies and equipment bundles.

An underutilised food waste disposal method used in China is anaerobic digestion, a process that transforms organic waste into biogas. This biogas, produced by bacteria as they digest the organic waste, can be used as energy on-site, or converted into biofuel. Cities across China are experimenting with making biogas from food waste to generate electricity and digestate, a substance used as fertiliser.

Finally, storage conditions should be improved, as well as measures like low temperature and high moisture storage, mechanical ventilation and promoting the use of by-products such as rice and wheat bran.

There is no shortage of potential solutions and it is vital that some of them, however novel, are tapped into. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world, generating about 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions, although some studies have this number at 11%. This issue is not location-specific, but an issue that affects every living thing on the planet and should therefore be seen as an urgent area to take action in.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) has released its 2019 Waste Statistics and Overall Recycling report, which reveals that last year, Singapore sent almost three million tonnes of waste to its only landfill on Semakau Island.

Singapore Waste Statistics 2019

The report, released annually, outlines the waste generated, recycled and disposed of in Singapore last year, categorised by different waste streams. About 30% of this waste was plastic waste- the top material sent to be incinerated on Pulau Semakau, while 20% was food waste and cardboard and paper waste made up 19%.

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While there was a 6% reduction in the total amount of waste generated in Singapore in 2019 compared with 2018, overall recycling rates fell to 59% from 61% in 2018; domestic recycling rates decreased to 17% last year from 22% in 2018, while non-domestic recycling rates fell to 73% from 75% in the same period.

The NEA says that this drop in the overall recycling rate is largely due to the recycling rate of paper, which fell from 56% in 2018 to 44% last year. It adds that the market for recycled paper was affected by dwindling export markets. Singapore exports 34% of its recyclables.

Since 2018, China has banned waste imports, including plastics, paper products and textiles, from foreign countries, which according to local environmental group Zero Waste SG, may have resulted in an excess supply of recyclable materials across countries and a drop in the prices. 

The amount of plastic waste generated decreased by 2% to 930 000 tonnes last year from 950 000 tonnes in 2018, while recycling rates remained at 4% for both years.

Regarding food waste, Singapore saw a decrease in food waste generation of 2.5% in 2019 compared with 2018, while recycling rates saw an increase to 18% last year from 17% in 2018.

Social enterprise TreeDots says that the key reason behind the generation of most food waste in Singapore is consumers’ perception. It says that many businesses and households ‘are still caught up in their so-called knowledge of freshness, or what a product should look like’.

It says, “Given that consumers’ perspective is as such, businesses will be forced to follow through as well. This results in a huge percentage of them throwing away perfectly good food deemed undesirable in the public’s eyes.”

Zero Waste Singapore: A Solution?

In 2019, the government announced its Zero Waste Masterplan to reduce the amount of waste sent to Semakau Landfill by 30% by 2030. The plan tackles the packaging, food and electronic waste crisis in Singapore, and was implemented to extend the landfill’s lifespan beyond the projected 2035. The Republic is also aiming to hit a national recycling rate of 70%, a domestic recycling rate of 30% and a non-domestic recycling rate of 81%.

Featured image by: Alan Levine

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