Waste not, want not: Understanding online public concerns toward food waste reduction in Singapore

Geraldine Chai, Khalishah Nadhirah Bte Abu Bakar, SzeSze Lee and Tamanna Bajaj

This research was conducted as part of the Research Studio, a core module of the Masters of Science in Urban Science, Policy and Planning, at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

In 2019, Singapore generated 744 million kilograms of food waste. To put it into perspective, that is equivalent to 51,000 double-decker buses. Globally, a whopping 1/3 of all food for human consumption goes to waste every year. Although Singapore is small, Singaporeans have big appetites, and with that, arises the inevitable issue of food waste.

Singaporeans are known for their love and passion for food. But how often do Singaporeans think about food waste? Is it a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind’? Do Singaporeans care about the waste they generate? What has been done to reduce food waste in Singapore?

This study makes use of open search data from Google to understand and analyse the online public concerns towards food waste reduction in Singapore in 2020.

Using thematic analysis, the open search data are then tagged based on high-level categories relevant to food waste. We draw our findings on public concerns on food waste as ranked by top search volumes at category level. Here’s what we learnt.

Singaporeans care most about…

The most searched words with regard to food waste in Singapore were:

  1. Food packaging (milk cartons)
  2. Recycling of food waste
  3. Food rescue
  4. Segregation of food waste
  5. Composting of food waste

This suggests that the online public are concerned with food wastage in the “downstream” phase of the chain, i.e. the processing, distribution and consumption stages. This includes the treatment of food waste, as evidenced by use of “recycling”, “segregation”, “composting” and “food rescue” in searches. The top search (“food packaging”) reflects concerns around the treatment of food packaging after consumption.

Packaging and food type matters

When we grouped the search words by categories, we see that Singaporeans are concerned about what to do with food packaging and how to recycle certain types of food. The combined category of food type and packaging had the highest occurrence at 7150 total search volumes. “Milk cartons” and “fast food packaging waste” are examples of terms in this category. We also see that other top categories are closely linked to the top combined category of food type and packaging.

Singaporeans find food wastage inevitable but do not like to be projected as wasteful.

Based on what Singaporeans’ online searches, we can infer that Singaporeans are concerned about food waste after consumption and are less interested in tackling upstream sources of food wastage or efforts to redistribute their food.

Recommendations

While there are signs of increasing efforts and public consciousness about food waste in Singapore, a lack of cohesion amongst the various stakeholders may be impeding efforts to implement effective solutions against food wastage.

Some existing and past initiatives to tackle food waste are:

  • Foodscape Collective – focuses on composting or treating particular food types such as unused fruit or vegetable portions
  • UglyGood – converts fruit peels and pulp into animal feed and cleaning products
  • Food Waste? Don’t Waste! (2018) – household food waste segregation and recycling 3-month pilot in Tampines GreenLace estate

However, to maximize the effectiveness and impact of these initiatives, there is a need to re-evaluate the synergies & gaps in current food reduction efforts with an informed understanding of public concerns towards food waste reduction in Singapore. Based on our research, we propose a re-evaluation at three levels, detailed in the figure below.

Food for thought

As we move forward in understanding online public concerns of Singaporeans in both actionable and informative ways, here are some future directions to explore:

  • Adding a real-time, time-series analysis to track how the onset of major events in the news or policy affects the concerns of the public toward food waste.
  • Further supplementing the quantitative data with focus groups, surveys and interviews to provide a qualitative perspective. This can answer the ‘why’ portion of general concerns about food waste. Both the quantitative and qualitative complement each other in value, enriching actionable insights.

References:
Grandhi, B. and Singh, JA. (2016). What a Waste! A Study of Food Wastage Behavior in Singapore. Journal of Food Products Marketing, 22(4), 471-485.
Jacobson, K. (2015, May 11). The environmental impact of foodwaste. Retrieved February 05, 2021 from https://moveforhunger.org/the-environmental-impact-of-food-waste
Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE). (2021). Zero Waste Masterplan. Food. Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. Singapore. Retrieved April 16, 2021 from https://www.towardszerowaste.gov.sg/zero-waste-masterplan/chapter3/food/

Geraldine Chai, Khalishah Nadhirah Bte Abu Bakar, SzeSze Lee and Tamanna Bajaj are students of the Masters of Science in Urban Science, Policy and Planning, a programme is jointly organized by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) and the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) cluster at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
This research was conducted in collaboration with Synthesis as part of the Research Studio led by Dr. Samuel Chng and Dr. Sylvain Remy.