Food waste in Singapore [Part 2] – Problems, and solutions

In 2019, 744,000 tonnes of food waste were generated in Singapore and only 18% were recycled. In a previous article, we explored some of the key concepts to have in mind when talking about food waste. Here we will dive into the origin of food waste and opportunities to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

2.1 What is food waste and where does it come from?

Food waste refers to food products which are discarded because unwanted or not suitable for consumption anymore.

Each actor of the supply chain contributes to the generation of food waste. Here is an overview of the main sources of food waste.

2.1.1 Producers

  • Product out of specifications: food producers are required to supply goods which meet specific requirements in terms of quality, safety, but also in terms of aesthetic. These requirements on the aesthetic of food products are called cosmetic standards. Such standards refer to the colour, size, weight, shape, etc. Even if these products are perfectly edible, they will be discarded as they are not suitable for the buyer.
  • Loss of production: this can be due to mismanagement of products, weather events, diseases, pests, etc.
  • Insufficient demand from market: trends change and so the demand for specific food products. When production is higher than the demand from the market, the unsold production might be discarded even before leaving the farm.

2.1.2 Distributor

  • Loss of goods during transportation, sorting, packing, conditioning: failure of the refrigerator, water infiltration from weather event, human mistake can all lead to the food being compromised, and therefore, being unfit for human consumption.
  • Cancellation of order: clients (such as retailers, factories, F&B outlets) might have to cancel orders. If the distributor is not able to find an alternative buyer, then the food will be discarded.
  • Insufficient shelf life: goods must be delivered to retailers with a minimum shelf life. In the case of fresh produce, the shelf life is very short. If there is a delay in the delivery of the product to the distributor (typically for overseas imports), the remaining shelf life for the retailer might be too short. Therefore, the perfectly edible food will be discarded.
  • Unwanted good: Particularly true in the context of Singapore where food products are mostly imported. To avoid the risk of running out of products due to unexpected demand or losses from the import process, distributors add a buffer to their orders. As a result, there is a constant over-supply of food in Singapore. The reality for a distributor is, the cost of lost sales (not enough products to deliver) is higher than the cost of buffer stocks or the disposal of buffer stocks.

2.1.3 Outlets (supermarkets)

  • Unwanted goods: products which are close to the expiry date, “ugly”, or with little demand from consumers are eventually removed from shelves and discarded.
  • Mishandling of goods by staff or consumers: food loss due to mishandling from staff or consumers is quite significant with fresh producers.

2.1.4 F&B outlets (restaurants)

  • Food scraps (from kitchen): the making of dishes might require peeling a vegetable. If there is no use for the skin, then it becomes a food scrap and is discarded.
  • Food waste (from consumers): consumers might not finish their dishes because the quantities are too much, or the meal does not fit their taste. Uneaten food will be discarded.
  • Unwanted goods: products which are close to the expiry date, “ugly”, or with little demand from consumers are eventually discarded.

2.1.5 Consumers

  • Food scraps: the making of dishes might require peeling a vegetable. If there is no use for the skin, then it becomes a food scrap and is discarded.
  • Expiring goods: if stored for too long, goods might turn bad and will be discarded by consumers.
  • Uneaten food: consumers might not finish their dishes because the quantities are too much, or the meal does not fit their taste. Uneaten food might be discarded.

2.2 Food waste reduction overall strategy

Similarly to the waste management hierarchy for solid waste, every step should be taken to minimise food waste in the first place and reused what cannot be minimised. Landfilling or incineration should be avoided whenever possible.

The picture below is a very elegant illustration of this strategy.

Figure 2 – Food recovery hierarchy (Source: origin of the picture is unknown)

2.3 Primary opportunities (Reduction and Reuse)

2.3.1 Producers

  • Problems to address “Product out of specifications” and “Insufficient demand from market”: this challenge requires close interaction between the different stakeholders. Opportunities can include:
    • Work with distributors so they accept to take “ugly” food and promote it as discounted products.
    • If possible, adapt production to actual demand. Note that a fast adaptation is particularly difficult for orchards where the lead time for trees to mature is minimum 5 years.
    • Find alternative uses for the fresh produces such as making dry fruits or processed products (like jam).
    • Rely on an ecosystem of organisations that can reuse products. This can include food factories, F&B outlets, animal feeding, and donation to charities.
  • Problem to address “Loss of production”: a range of opportunities can be considered for this problem such as:
    • Build biodiversity around farmlands for protection against pest,
    • Optimise fertilisers, harvesting schedule, irrigation

2.3.2 Distributor

  • Problem to address “Loss of goods during transportation, sorting, packing, conditioning”: a range of opportunities can be considered for this problem such as:
    • Better design of packaging
    • Optimise the use of controlled environment
    • Ensure suitable and sufficient maintenance of equipment
    • Optimise logistical processes to reduce transportation lead time
    • Shorten distance between producer and consumer
  • Problems to address “Cancellation of order”, “Insufficient shelf life”, and “Unwanted good”: to address these problems, it is necessary to build an ecosystem of organisations that can reuse products. This can include food factories, F&B outlets, animal feeding, and donation to charities.

2.3.3 Outlets (supermarkets)

  • Problem to address “Unwanted goods”: a range of opportunities can be considered for this problem such as:
    • Optimisation of the purchase of food based on the demand from consumers.
    • Promote ugly food and suggest recipes to use them as well as educative factsheet to explain why they are still edible.
    • Offer discount for products close to expiry date
    • Relying on an ecosystem of organisations that can reuse products. This can include food factories, F&B outlets, animal feeding, and donation to charities.
  • Problem to address “Mishandling of goods by staff or consumers”: education campaign towards consumers and training for the staff are the main opportunities.

2.3.4 F&B outlets (restaurants)

  • Problem to address “Food scraps (from kitchen)”: training of staff to ensure the best use of kitchen tools is the main opportunity.
  • Problem to address “Food waste (from consumers)”: a range of opportunities can be considered for this problem such as:
    • Monitoring the amount and type of uneaten food to optimise portions in future meals.
    • Offer incentives for finishing the meals.
    • Awareness campaign towards consumers.
  • Problem to address “Unwanted goods”: a range of opportunities can be considered for this problem such as:
    • Optimisation of the purchase of food based on the demand from consumers.
    • Offer discount for products close to expiry date.
    • Relying on an ecosystem of organisations that can reuse products. This can include food factories, F&B outlets, animal feeding, and donation to charities.

2.3.5 Consumers

  • Problems to address “Food scraps”, “Expiring goods”, and “Uneaten food”: awareness campaigns directed to consumers are the main opportunities. Such campaign can be designed to inform consumers on
    • The importance of buying only what you need.
    • How to better store food at home to extend shelf life.
    • Tips and ideas to make use of food scraps or eaten food.
    • Organisation and tools they can use to share unwanted edible food.

2.4 Secondary opportunities (Industrial uses and composting)

Next in the hierarchy of food waste management are:

  • Feeding for animal
  • Composting/Fertilising
  • Anaerobic digestion

Once you have exhausted all opportunities for the reduction and reuse of food products, then you can investigate solutions for the “recycling” of food waste. Keep in mind that this should be considered as a last resort solution (before incineration and landfilling).

You can find a complete (yet not exhaustive) list of food distribution organisations, recycling facilities and suppliers of on-site food waste treatment system which operate in Singapore on NEA’s website:

https://www.nea.gov.sg/our-services/waste-management/3r-programmes-and-resources/food-waste-management/food-distribution-organisations-local-recycling-facilities-and-suppliers

Be aware that, starting in 2024, large food waste producers will have to comply with the Mandatory Food Waste Segregation regulation. See our article on the subject here.

In a future article, we will explore the main types of food waste recycling technologies.

2.5 Actors of interest in Singapore

  • Technology for the monitoring of food waste in kitchens
  • Lumitics is a company specialised in food waste management solutions for the F&B industry. They supply a smart food waste tracking device that tracks all food waste in the kitchen. With this tracker, you will know exactly how much and what food waste your kitchen is generating. https://lumitics.com/

Companies and organisation for the collection and redistribution of edible food

  • TreeDots is a B2B platform that allows suppliers to re-distribute their unsold inventory to organisations that can use them. By doing so, suppliers gain from salvaging value off their unsold inventory, buyers get quality ingredients at lower prices, and we all gain from a greener world. https://www.thetreedots.com/
  • Uglyfood was founded in 2017 with a mission to eliminate food waste and revamp the food ecosystem. Our aim is to make sustainability a part of people’s everyday lives. We operate in the fruits and vegetables space by selling excess or ugly produce, our own branded products, and sustainably sourced goods. https://www.uglyfood.com.sg/
  • Food Bank Singapore acquires donated food, much of which would otherwise be wasted, from farms, manufacturers, distributors, retail stores, consumers, and other sources, and make it available to those in need through a network of member beneficiaries. Our mission is to end food insecurity in all forms in Singapore. https://foodbank.sg/

Company for the transformation of food waste via insect farming

  • Insectta is the first urban insect farm in Singapore rearing the black soldier fly (hermetia illucens). Insectta takes food waste and returns it into the economy as valuable biomaterials. https://www.insectta.com/

Food waste is not a new concept. Although the contribution of specific sectors/stakeholders may have changed over time, the solutions for saving our valuable resources are known:

  • First, reduce,
  • Second, engage your organisation into building a local ecosystem for the reuse of discards. This will build resilience for your organisation and the local community.
  • Finally, invest in technologies for the recycling of food waste into fertiliser or compost.

If you need help to investigate such opportunities, get in touch with us.

Note that in this article, we didn’t discuss regulatory opportunities which can have a huge impact in the behaviour of companies and the recovery of organic matter. At a minimum, we will mention two famous opportunities which have been adopted in France:

  • Ban on the destruction of edible food products by distributors and supermarkets, and
  • Tax incentive for in-kind food donation to charities.
We might explore such opportunities in a future article.

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About Zero Waste City

Zero Waste City is a consulting business specialised in waste reduction for commercial and industrial facilities. We help companies to save money by reducing waste and to achieve Zero Waste goals. Our services include:

Our services include:

  • Waste audit (quantifying waste streams and identifying immediate cost saving opportunities)
  • Compliance with regulations such as:
    • Mandatory Packaging Reporting
    • Mandatory Waste Reporting
    • Mandatory Food Waste Segregation
  • Project implementation and on-going support
  • Measurement and Verification of savings
  • Guidance to achieve Zero Waste goals and certifications.