Food waste management in Singapore: envisioning the possibilities of a Zero Waste Nation

By Cheryl Low and Julienne Chen

Global food waste is a complex problem that threatens food security and environmental sustainability. It points towards massive inefficiencies and severe mismanagement of resources in the global food network. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, one third of the food produced yearly (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes) for human consumption is lost or wasted. The reduction of food in terms of quantity is often understood through ‘food loss’ and ‘food waste’. While ‘food loss’ refers to the decrease of food quantity at the earlier stages of the food production practices (i.e. production, agricultural harvesting and processing), ‘food waste’ refers to discarded food meant for consumption at the last levels of the food supply chain (i.e. retail and consumption).

As compared to developing countries, food waste is significantly increasing in developed countries, especially in households and retail outlets. Singapore, a ‘food paradise’ well-known for its culinary delicacies, is no exception to this rule. According to a study conducted by the National Environment Agency (NEA) in 2017, food waste in Singapore accounts for half of the waste disposed daily by each household. Tasked with limited land for disposing of such waste, the government has developed the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, with the aim of achieving a Zero Waste Nation with a 30% domestic recycling rate by 2030. To achieve this goal, we must ask: how effective are existing measures in mitigating food waste at the personal, community and policy levels? What role can and should ground-up organisations play in helping to address these types of complex urban challenges?

Singapore’s food waste management hierarchy. Source: NEA

Currently, there is a hierarchy of food waste management approaches developed by the NEA, and an accompanying set of programmes to help meet the aims of the hierarchy. Their most preferred strategy is to prevent and reduce food waste from the consumer’s end through public awareness and personal action. For instance, the Food Waste Reduction Outreach Programme aims to educate the public on food waste through a handbook containing recipes and tips on food storage. The NEA has also trained Food Wastage Reduction Ambassadors to encourage reduction of food waste. The second strategy includes encouraging organisations and members of the public to donate unsold or excess food by linking them to food distribution organisations and food banks. A reference list of food distribution organisations, food waste recycling facilities and suppliers for on-site food waste treatment systems is listed on the NEA website. There are also guidelines and public health documents prepared by the NEA to help people donate food responsibly under the ‘Love Your Food’ campaign. The third strategy involves recycling unavoidable food waste, including providing food waste digesters at local schools. Similarly, on-site food treatment machines have been launched at local hawker centres. The least preferred option is for food waste to be disposed of in regular trash chutes, where it is then incinerated and/or sent to the land fill.

Countries such as Taiwan and South Korea have implemented programmes to reduce food waste, including pay-as-you-throw systems which require people to pay for the overall amount of waste that they dispose of. In Taiwan, residents must purchase standard trash bags while food waste is collected separately free of charge, thus incentivizing residents to separate their food from their daily waste. This system is upheld as residents must bring their trash directly to the garbage trucks during the daily trash collection. In South Korea, some neighbourhoods also require residents to pay for standard trash bags, while others have implemented centralised bins with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to bill households based on the weight of their trash.

Singapore’s high rise infrastructure allows many households to dispose of their waste directly from within their kitchen

However, Singapore has developed a fairly unique waste disposal system, which allows people to discard their trash through a rubbish chute either on the same floor in their housing estate, or oftentimes, directly from within the housing unit itself. While convenient and user-friendly, it has reduced households’ accountability towards the amount of waste they generate and makes common solutions, such as requiring standard trash bags, difficult to enforce. Thus, implementing a similar pay-as-you-throw or other proven approach towards reducing household waste would require a customised, context-sensitive approach in Singapore.

In the foreground of the larger policy discussions, several ground-up initiatives have emerged in this space, arguably acting as a ‘living lab’ of different approaches towards targeting food waste. They include Freegans in Singapore, which is a broad network of several thousand individuals who ‘dumpster dive’ for discarded, yet still edible food. They have well-used communication systems that alert others to locations where they can collect and use what would otherwise be food waste. Volunteers in this loose network also work with local markets to connect their bulk unsold or discarded food with local food banks or other organisations, including arranging transportation and logistics – creating an effective food (re-)distribution network in its own right.

Similarly, community refrigerators have been tested in the ground floor of a few housing estates, stocked with food by local residents and managed by volunteers. Food in these ‘open access’ refrigerators can be used by anyone, thus providing a space to connect people with excess food with those who are food insecure. These types of ground-up initiatives have generated wide media coverage on the magnitude and root causes of food waste in Singapore, while also successfully piloting alternative solutions that address the challenge.

Other resident-led groups have created their own initiatives to test new methods of engagement and solutioning on the topic of food waste in Singapore. They include Food Unfiltered’s outreach programmes and videos, Zero Waste SG’s ‘Save Food Cut Waste’ campaign, which brought together culinary schools, a local supermarket and the NEA to re-create traditional recipes using leftovers, and the ‘Feeding the 5000’ campaign where approximately 1,500 kilos of ‘ugly’ vegetables were collected and used to cook meals for 5,000 people. The Foodscape Collective is another local initiative, which crowdsourced an online map of urban farms and used it as a starting point to host conversations about different solutions to tackle food waste. This includes methods that both supplement existing government initiatives (e.g., awareness), as well as bridge into areas that traditionally are not under government purview but pose important facets of a comprehensive solution towards sustainable waste management.

Most importantly, these initiatives reflect on-the-ground, local solutions that represent one of the highest forms of community engagement. While they are generally small in scale, they test out new modes of doing and generate much-needed insights into understanding what is effective for Singapore. They are borne out of day-to-day observations and understandings of the system from a ‘user perspective’ and thus add a rich and important voice to the ongoing conversation. They generally rely heavily on trust, personal networks and connecting with others in ways that are authentic and relatable, and expose potential opportunities that are hidden from a macro perspective. Given due consideration, and with appropriate means to engage with decision-making processes, such ground-up initiatives pose immense capacity to be an effective partner to co-create solutions that respond to the needs and potentialities of our emergent urban challenges.

This post is written as part of the Centre’s research on the role of resident-led initiatives in co-creating urban solutions, supported by the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre (IDC).