Trashing bad habits

Posted on December 25, 2011. Filed under: Waste |

-The Star-By TAN EE LOO educate@thestar.com.my

With more people dying each year from hunger-related causes, it is time for us to think of ways to stop food wastage and give away our unconsumed food to others.

THE two friends agree to meet at a fast food restaurant for a meal in the evening, but much of their food is left uneaten when they leave the outlet. Towards the end of the evening, a man walks in and heads straight to the restaurant’s kitchen where he carefully goes through the trash picking out half-eaten chicken wings and drumsticks, and puts them into a plastic bag .

The following morning, a group of village children excitedly await the man as he brings over the leftovers for them.

Yummy: Revathy, 6 (right) biting into a bun while her friend Tharani, 5, looks on. Both the girls from the Taman Megah Handicapped and Disabled Children’s Home, Petaling Jaya, have been fortunate to get a supply of bread and pastries from Tan who delivers them regularly. — AHMAD IZZRAFIQ ALIAS / The Star.

Some of them have food residue smudged over their faces and hair, but the hungry children are not concerned about hygiene.

While this scene may be typical of children scrambling for leftovers in city slums and villages, it was actually a recording from the short film Chicken Ala Carte.

Produced by Filipino environmentalist Ferdinand Dimadura in 2005, the film won wide acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival 2006.

It may have been intended to address the issue of poverty and hunger, but it also highlights the issue of food that is wasted.

More than 25,000 people die of hunger-related causes every day, according to international relief organisation Stop Hunger Now (SHN). So instead of tossing leftovers and unconsumed food into the garbage bin, we should think of the people we can donate the food to.

Records show that more people die each year from hunger-related causes compared to AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

A report commisioned and released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in May, states that approximately one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year which comes to about 1.3bil tonnes, gets lost or is wasted.

Dr Sumiani Yusoff and PhD candidate Ng Chee Guan checking out the food waste at the university’s on-site waste treatment facility

Food losses and food wastage are two different things altogether, says the report. Food losses occurs at the production, harvest, post-harvest and processing phases due to poor infrastructure, low levels of technology and low investment in the food production systems.

Food waste is more a problem in industrialised countries, often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible food products into garbage bins.

It is estimated that per capita waste by consumers is between 95 and 115 kgs waste a year in Europe and North America, as stated in the report, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away between six and 11kg of waste a year.

Our country may be known as a food paradise in the region, but there is also a great deal of food wastage.

We tend to take our food for granted because we don’t see the amount of hard work that is put in to grow and produce the food we eat every day.

According to Dr Theng Lee Chong, the national coordinator for the collaboration project between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Environment Ministry, Japan, food waste is about 50% of the total waste in Malaysia.

Food waste can be defined in four categories: food residue, kitchen waste (from preparation of meals), unconsumed waste (e.g. hotel buffet), and expired food, says the waste management specialist.

“Food residue and kitchen waste are inevitable. But unconsumed waste and expired food are a problem which makes up 10 to 15% in the total food waste generated in the country,” he adds. In Kuala Lumpur, the total waste comes up to about 3,000 tonnes every day, of which about 1,500 tonnes are food waste.

In fact, he says, food waste can be as high as 70% at the landfill site but he points out that this is because many recyclable materials are recovered but most of the food waste is disposed.

For a good cause: Hoh sorting out the pastries and bread with an assistant before distributing them to welfare home representatives.

Several canteen operators say that they are glad to give any food that has not been sold to those in need.

“I will usually keep the food for the cleaners or workers who want it, because it will be a shame to just throw food that is still edible. However, if they don’t come and collect it, I will have to throw it away,” says the canteen operator, who declined to be named.

A worker who handles fruits and vegetables at a supermarket says fruits and vegetables that are not so fresh are normally sold at a discounted price. If there are no takers, they will end up in the bin as well.

Too much food

As the country ushers in the Christmas and New Year, the holiday season is often seen as a time of excess gluttony.

Dr Theng: Food waste is about 50% of the total waste in our country.

“We tend to be very lavish in food preparation and serving. If you don’t serve food or enough food to your visitors, you may not be seen as a good host,” says Universiti Malaya (UM) Assoc Prof Dr Sumiani Yusoff, whose area of expertise is environmental engineering and management.

While lavish wedding banquets and feasts are a popular choice among the Chinese to celebrate a couple’s union, Dr Theng says the unconsumed food ends up in garbage bins at the end of the night.

“We normally get eight or nine course-meal at Chinese wedding receptions. Many guests have had a lot to eat by the time they get to the second last course. The fried rice is hardly ever touched before it gets thrown away,” he says.

Dr Theng says guests should be encouraged to pack the unconsumed food home to avoid wastage.

“If the host of a wedding dinner, makes an announcement urging guests to pack the unconsumed food home, the guests will not feel embarrassed because they have been given the approval to do so. This has been done before, and is an effective way to reduce food wastage,” he says.

Much of the unconsumed food comes from hotels. According to a recent survey, 81.3% of the hotels were found to dispose of their unconsumed food.

Many of the bigger hotels, because of their respective policies, do not allow for leftover foods to be taken away by their employees or guests.

“Just imagine the amount of food after a buffet lunch or dinner that is still ‘untouched’ which can still be eaten by many people,” says Dr Theng.

To effectively reduce the issue of food waste, National Solid Waste Management Department director-general Datuk Dr Nadzri Yahaya says the department is looking at the possibility of setting up a food bank next year.

The food bank will facilitate the distribution of unconsumed food to welfare groups. By doing so the food will not go to waste.

As the project coordinator, Dr Theng encourages bakeries, hotels, hypermarkets and volunteers to take part in the project.

“The concept is to distribute food that otherwise would have gone to waste. We need to make sure that we have a system to ensure the food that comes in get delivered to the welfare groups in the fastest time possible.”

The department has also carried out a study to look at the amount of food waste being generated everyday in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley.

With so much food thrown away Dr Nadzri says that it is perhaps time to look into the feasibility of building an anaerobic digester to turn waste into compost and renewable energy.

Action plan

There are many practices that we can emulate and learn from developed countries. Many of these nations have already initiated plans to minimise food wastage, says environmental management experts.

With a touch of creativity, the issue of food waste can be minimised effectively.

“In Japan, for example, many restaurants in Tokyo are adopting a new approach in reducing food waste by offering customers a choice for food portions,” says Dr Theng.

“If you order a don (rice) of standard size, the restaurant will charge you at normal price. However, if you want to order a smaller portion (that is if you are certain that you are unable to finish standard size portions) the eatery will give a discount of about 50 yen. If you ask for a bigger portion, you will get that at no extra cost,” says Dr Theng, who made the observation during his recent trip to Japan.

Recalling her experience of attending a seminar in Japan, Dr Sumiani says she was given coupons during the lunch break to buy food at the participating outlets.

“With the coupons, you can choose and buy food that you want to eat, and the portion is just enough for you. It is a win-win situation, instead of a common buffet style seminar lunch break” she says.

In Malaysia, food is always prepared on a lavish scale for participants at international conferences as it is a way of demonstrating hospitality, she adds.

“In Japan, the United States and Denmark, event organisers for conferences opt to give participants snack bars, sandwiches and fruits. It’s healthier and there is minimal food wastage,” says Dr Sumiani.

As the FAO report suggests, education in schools and political initiatives are possible starting points to changing consumer attitudes.

Dr Sumiani, says individuals need to behave responsibly.

“Malaysians love buffet and people want to get value for money so when they go for buffet, they tend to pile up their food up on their plates,” she says.

Education and awareness from a young age are vital in reducing food waste.

“Malaysians have to be educated and aware of the consequences of their lifestyle, food intake, over consumption and production of food. Buy or consume only the amount you can eat,” she says.

At UM, a zero trash campaign has been started to promote recycling (phase 1) and reduce food waste (phase 2) that will otherwise end up at landfill sites.

Dr Sumiani says the initative was started as a class project in 2008, and has been developed into a university project. About 200kg of food waste is composted daily at the on-site treatment facilities.

“Our plan is to make it a sustainable project which should work like a training centre so that the public can come to us and learn how food waste is managed,” she says.

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