Paying the price for Malaysians’ love of food

Posted on June 26, 2011. Filed under: Waste |

-The Star-

FOOD holds an important and central place in Malaysian culture and the rich variety of culinary offerings reflects the country’s diverse and multi-cultural background.

But the love of food has come at a cost, namely an unsustainable growth in food waste. Latest figures suggest food waste accounts for 45% to 50% of the country’s household and commercial waste, known as Municipal Solid Waste (MSW).

It is estimated that Peninsular Malaysia will generate approximately five million tonnes of food waste in the year 2020. This would be enough to fill nearly 15 Petronas Towers.

The proliferation of cafes and food stalls makes eating out cheap for the majortiy but at the same time, it further fuels food wastage.

Take a morning drive through any of Malaysia’s towns or cities and you will find people packed into small street cafes having their breakfast before starting work.

Likewise, hawker stalls, street traders and open air food courts are all popular retreats for people looking for lunch or a late night meal.

Even a buffet meal at a hotel or restaurant in Malaysia is affordable compared with Europe. And buffets are “lethal” when it comes to generating waste.

Diners feel the need to pile huge quantities of food on the plate, with little regard of whether they can finish the food as they have paid for it.

The food service sector is rapidly overtaking households as one of the biggest sources of food waste.

According to Euromonitor International, independent players dominate Malaysia’s food service sector with street stalls and kiosks accounting for 84% of the market, as opposed to 7% of chain operators.

Despite the Government’s commitment to allow only fully licensed food outlets to operate, registering every kiosk, canteen and food court is a highly complicated undertaking.

This is made all the more difficult in Malaysia where turnover in the sector is extremely high.

Changing consumer’s attitude towards reducing food waste is essential while changing the practices of people working in the food sector will be just as challenging.

Engaging with this sector is no easy task considering how vast and fragmented it is.

Capturing these independently run food outlets is one side of the problem, lack of public awareness is another.

In a country of increasing disposable income and booming consumerism, there is the tendency to perceive surplus food as a sign of prosperity. Surplus food consequently leads to a food waste generation.

Whilst attitudes towards waste do vary, there is a general reluctance to engage even in the simplest waste management tasks such as carrying waste to a collection point, putting the waste bags in a bin and closing the lid once it is full.

Finally, the belief that waste should be collected and dealt with at no cost to the waste producer, is not an uncommon public perception.

Waste minimisation, recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion strategies for food waste will be just as important in the food service sector as those focused at a household level.

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG) is currently responsible for waste management. To date, recycling is estimated to be as low as 3%-5%, a long way off the Government’s target of 20%. In terms of disposal of waste, landfills dominate with 95%-97 % of waste collected ending up in one of the 112 landfills.

According to the MHLG, the majority of landfills are at full capacity. The lack of disposal alternatives is partially due to the fact that collection costs make up 83% of the total waste management budget.

As such, it is not surprising to find that there are insufficient resources left over to address waste minimisation, recycling and waste treatment

Weak enforcement, uncertainty over roles and responsibilities amongst governing authorities and limited stakeholder coordination have all contributed towards this disconnect between policy and practice.

Furthermore, despite efforts by the MHLG, public awareness of the environment and specifically, food waste, remains low.

The frequency of waste collection is another noteworthy feature of Malaysian waste management. The country’s high humidity and temperatures accelerate decomposition of organic waste, making daily collection a necessity due to health, safety and amenity concerns.

Difficulty in reaching inaccessible sites or premises, especially in villages and unplanned settlements, further complicates the task of waste collection. A further factor to consider is the revenue generating mechanism to finance waste management activities.

Currently, there is no landfill tax and collection charges are so low that collection authorities are in desperate need for support from the federal government.

Encouragingly, the new Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Bill’ promises to support long-term investment by adopting 22-year concessions for the waste collection companies, giving them long-term viability.

The Bill is a positive step towards a more coordinated approach to waste management in Malaysia.

Benefits of composting

Despite the challenges faced, food waste has the potential to be turned into an opportunity. One such opportunity is composting, where the combination of the high organic content in MSW and the local climate make it a very attractive treatment option.

Moreover, the capital and operational costs for composting are generally lower than other waste treatment options suitable for organic waste. By diverting food waste from the landfills, the life of the already overstretched landfills is extended. In addition, although skilled staff are required, composting still remains a relatively low-tech solution.

A further advantage of composting over alternative treatments of food waste is that it can be scaled up or down, from home composting, to community scale schemes and centralised facilities. The production of compost as a soil conditioner also has the potential to generate revenue.

Food waste, which makes up nearly half of the MSW, is one of the major environmental challenges in the country. Addressing the problem could could help reach recycling targets and close the gap between policy and practice.

Although composting has its drawbacks, it offers considerable benefits such as landfill diversion. The answer for food waste treatment in Malaysia does not need to rely on one option; instead, it can be part of an integrated approach that incorporates a number of options to achieve a more sustainable outcome.

As Malaysians enjoy their food, they can be part of the solution by avoiding wastage and its damaging environmental consequences.

To borrow a recent British government slogan, Malaysians should “Love Food, Hate Waste.”

Effie Papargyropoulou is a visiting lecturer in Environmental Management at the Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology (MJIIT) of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) in Kuala Lumpur.

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