Food waste issues are causing a stink

Huge amounts of food are discarded daily. When left to rot in landfills, food waste emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Photo: Dr Theng Lee Chong

Malaysians love their food, yet they have no qualms about wasting it. Food waste makes up half of the 33,000 tonnes of solid waste generated every day, according to the National Solid Waste Management Department (JPSPN). Of the discarded food, some 10% to 15% – or over 2,000 tonnes – is still consumable.

A visit to a landfill would expose our wasteful habits. Waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong can attest to that, having visited over 50 landfill sites in the past 15 years.

“Food waste is a huge problem in this country. I’ve seen food in their original packaging simply disposed in landfills. And vegetables that are still edible, though they may appear unappealing, discarded by the loads at markets.

“At eateries, you find leftovers from customers. All these make food waste one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. If food waste can be properly tackled, then half of our problem will be solved. At present, treatment of food waste is minimal in our country, as with recycling. Only a handful of F&B players do their own recycling, which constitutes less than 5% in total,” said Theng at the seminar "Food Waste Management – Good Practices and Future Directions".

Waste management specialist Dr Theng Lee Chong
Theng believes that everyone should try to minimise food waste at home.

The event in Putrajaya was organised by JPSPN, the Ministry of Environment Japan and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES).

The seminar provided updates on the National Strategic Plan on Food Waste Management, a joint-project by the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry and the Ministry of Environment Japan.

Theng, who is national coordinator for the development of the strategic plan, says people should first try and minimise food waste instead of dumping it.

“If there is still food waste, then look into treatment at source (like composting or as animal feed). Only if all else fails, then send it to the landfill.”

He disputes the commonly-used phrase, “waste is wealth”.

“Food waste does not yield wealth. People often misinterpret this and so are unwilling to pay for proper waste management. In many developed countries, people would pay for proper disposal because they understand that they are responsible for generating the waste in the first place.

“You might be able to make money from high-value recyclable materials, but definitely not for most categories of waste. So those who do recycle food waste do it for the environment and to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Discarded food. Photo: Dr Theng Lee Chong
Huge amounts of food are discarded daily. When left to rot in landfills, food waste emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Photo: Dr Theng Lee Chong

JPSPN director-general Mohd Rosli Abdullah says the National Strategic Plan on Food Waste Management has been endorsed for implementation by the ministry. It identifies six strategies for food waste management until 2020 but applies only to food waste generators in the industrial, commercial and institutional sectors. The plan does not cover households.

The first strategy is on obtaining baseline data on food waste. Industries will have to report the quantities and types of food waste, and current management practices. Next, a food waste recycling regulation will be introduced to regulate waste generators, transporters and collection centres. Their roles and responsibilities in reducing, handling and properly managing food waste will be outlined.

National Solid Waste Management Department director-general Mohd Rosli Abdullah
Mohd Rosli says Malaysia’s strategies for minimising waste will draw on the experience of Japan.

The third strategy is to minimise food waste at source. Understanding the environmental impacts of food waste will encourage waste minimisation, thus reducing the burden of managing it.

The fourth calls for waste generators to take initiatives to treat food waste at source. The fifth strategy entails a centralised food waste treatment for those unable to treat their waste at source, to be made available by the government or authorities. Lastly, there will be measures to capture methane (emitted from decomposing food in landfills) for treatment and recovery.

“Our collaboration with the Ministry of Environment Japan started in November 2010. The objective is to study good practices in food waste management from the Japanese,” said Mohd Rosli.

The department has carried out pilot projects on waste management with different institutions. It includes a composting and a small biogas plant with Universiti Malaya.

A collaboration with the Petaling Jaya City Council sees the establishment of a food bank in Section 8, Petaling Jaya, where excess food from retailers and hotels is delivered to orphanages and old folks homes. There is also a food waste composting site in Petaling Jaya which turns market waste and food waste from industries into compost.

Meanwhile, food waste from households will be governed under guidelines that also stress on waste minimisation and treatment at home. This will be carried out under the mandatory waste separation ruling from September for households nationwide (except in the states of Selangor, Terengganu, Kelantan, Perak and Penang).

Under the 10th Malaysian Plan (2011-2015), the Federal Government has assumed full responsibility of solid waste management from local authorities other than those in the five mentioned states. As part of the move, some 112 unsanitary landfills will be closed, rehabilitated and upgraded into sanitary landfills; 17 of these sites have been closed thus far.

Potatoes discarded at a landfill.</p><p>Photo: Dr Theng Lee Chong.
A heap of potatoes at a landfill illustrates how much good food we waste. Photo: Dr Theng Lee Chong.

IGES (Kitakyushu Urban Centre) programme manager Hayashi Shiko who represents the Ministry of Environment Japan, says his country’s Food Waste Recycling Law took effect in 2001 and targets industrial and commercial sectors. Households come under the different municipal governments.

“By 2011, we had achieved an average 82% recycling rate compared to just 37% in 2001. All waste, except for separated waste, goes to the incinerator,” said Hayashi.

He added that IGES has reviewed the food waste recycling policies of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, European Union and the United States to obtain input for Malaysia’s strategic plan.

Later, when asked what will become of the unfinished food at the seminar, Theng said he has not spotted any wasted food on plates, and assured that leftovers will be packed home by staff.

“The food residues will have to be sent to the landfill since there isn’t a facility here in Putrajaya to treat the waste. It then begs the question: when waste separation is carried out for households in September, where will it be sent to, and where are the treatment facilities? We need these to be swiftly answered and addressed,” said Theng.

RELATED STORY: What the authorities in Kuching South and Kampar are doing to resolve food waste issues

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