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Asia's sustainability traction has been sluggish but Singapore companies can usher in a new era

By Yap Yien Li

Worldwide, one-third of all food produced is wasted every year. That 1.3 billion tonnes of food is enough to feed 2 billion people – enough to feed the world’s hungry twice, with plenty of leftovers. This wasted food is worth US$1 trillion annually, and with each kilogram of food creating carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the production of 25,000 plastic bottles, this waste is greatly costing the environment too.

On an individual level, there are actions we can all take. But to effectively reduce food waste, we need to take bigger, systems-level actions. Compared to our neighbours, Singapore has been slow to take up the sustainability mantle. But harnessing the lost opportunity of food waste could be a huge opportunity for Singaporean businesses and citizens alike.

The cost of food waste in Singapore

Singapore wasted 817,000 tonnes of food in 2021, with just 19% of it recycled. One survey estimates local households throw away an estimated $6.57 million worth of food per week, which does not account for the financial and ecological cost of growing, fertilising, picking, packing, packaging and transporting the food to Singapore’s supermarkets. Waste food is generally incinerated and then dumped into a landfill, a process that produces additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While this food is being wasted, 1 in 10 Singaporeans faced food insecurity in the last 12 months. This is an enormous inefficiency - one that we could easily address.

Singapore’s food insecurity is by no means simple. We are a land-scarce, resource-poor nation, primarily living in high-rise apartments with trash chutes without waste segregation. We are a food-loving nation, that loves convenience and efficiency, yet mountains of edible food are thrown away while families struggle. We are also a nation with a tradition of kampung spirit - living in close proximity to our neighbours – neighbours we could share our surplus food with. This isn’t misguided idealism: in a survey of free sharing app OLIO’s users, the top reason Singaporeans share their surplus food is to help others.

We have innovative plans to decarbonise our grid, develop electric vehicle infrastructure and strengthen food production, but Singapore is not efficiently managing food waste at a meaningful scale.

There is a limit to personal responsibility, especially since households only account for half of the food waste, which is where the private sector can take leadership. Free apps that enable sharing between neighbours give businesses with surplus food a direct connection to individuals in need. 

A maturing policy environment

An issue on a scale so large needs change at the systems level – and Singapore’s government is beginning to step up, though businesses should not wait for regulations to force their hand. 

Today, we are seeing the slow but steady evolution of a more enabling policy landscape, powered by technology. Our progressive regulators were the first in the world to approve lab-cultured meats for human consumption. We are an innovative society with high rates of smartphone usage and technology fluency. 

While sharing food is theoretically easy, social norms can make it hard to start – this is where tech can help to connect those with excess food to those who are looking, at a local level.

The Singaporean government has set some ambitious goals around food security, packaging and waste management, in the Singapore Green Plan 2030: a nationwide movement to tackle climate change. This is enabled by initiatives such as the 30 by 30 plan to produce 30% of Singapore’s food locally by 2030, or the Resource Sustainability Act 2020, which mandates on-site segregation and treatment of commercial and industrial food waste at source, to reduce transport emissions. But there are gaps between each of these initiatives. By building better bridges between them, we can take an even more circular approach to reduce waste, and cut emissions while improving food security. 

With businesses accounting for 50% of food waste, there is a clear need for more support to bridge the transition toward more sustainable food waste management practices. Instead of innovating for the sake of novelty, businesses should be guided to make resource-efficient choices with regulations that set certain limits, and grants to make them achievable. In a rapidly-changing food supply chain, businesses who can take the lead on sustainability are building up their resilience against future shocks - and there will be plenty of advantages for the brave first-movers. So what does this leadership look like?

The opportunities for businesses

Ultimately, we are all responsible for the waste we generate. But if businesses start to make seismic shifts in their practices, the impact of these innovations could multiply. Many food and waste businesses understand the issue of food waste – they see it in their kitchens and accept it as the cost of doing business. As energy, food and fuel prices rise, there is no better time to start reducing this waste than now.

Beyond a lack of profit, disposing of waste food has no direct cost attached to it. There is no incentive to encourage suppliers to reduce their waste footprint, and businesses are wary of trialling new approaches – especially as they are just starting to recover from lockdown-related disruptions. 

This is where there is an opportunity for both businesses and policymakers to up the ante in applying more innovative initiatives to the lagging food & beverage industry and bring it up to speed with the rest of the country. First movers now will not just forge a path forward – they are protecting themselves against likely policy shifts. Market forces will eventually push change, as a mix of waste monitoring and management regulations, consumer choices and technological enablement will make sustainable practices the most desirable, efficient and profitable. Failure to act now puts businesses at risk of falling behind and losing critical customer share in this hypercompetitive market of educated and choosy consumers.

Conclusion

Rather than wait to be buffeted around by market forces, Singapore businesses have a unique opportunity to lead from the front in a region where the adoption of sustainability is slow. The benefits of investing in food surplus reduction projects can be felt across organisations: collecting information on food flows can inform better resource management, clear data makes evidencing ESG commitments easier, and gives a differentiating edge against competitors. The feedback loop that it creates makes that accountability and efficiency a top priority for the business leaders - organisational excellence and sustainability are not mutually exclusive, but interdependent. 

It is simple enough, even easy, for wholesalers, supermarkets, grocers, bakeries and caterers to take decisive action. The tools are there, and policy is beginning to set regulations to guide the way. Regardless of their food waste footprint, businesses can help build a culture of transparency by requesting best practices and progress indicators from suppliers. Changes echo very quickly in the food system, and cutting food waste presents a huge opportunity for Singaporean food and beverage businesses to take a leading role in this new era of sustainability.

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