Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Food waste is one of the most pressing environmental, social and political problems facing the globe today. 1.03 billion tonnes of food waste are generated globally every year, valued at $2.6 trillion USD, and sufficient to feed the world's 815 million hungry four times over.
Of particular concern in this food waste epidemic: countries with warm climates and insufficient infrastructure to handle the vast amount of wasted food generated daily. This article is going to delve into the problem of a food waste in South-East Asia, and the reasons this particular geography is at special risk in the fight against food waste.
A study performed by the Future Directions International (FDI), a non-profit institute, found that South and Southeast Asia accounts for 25% of the globe's food waste.
More than 50% of Southeast Asia's waste is food waste
Malaysia generates 38, 000 tons of waste every day. Nearly 8% of that waste is edible, and could feed ~2 million hungry people.
Indonesia wastes 300 kg of food per person every year (or over 8 million tons), making them the second largest source of food waste in Asia
50-80% of Vietnam's total waste is food waste
Metro Manila (the Philippines) alone wastes an est. 2, 175 tons of food every day
Thailand's 27.4 million tons of waste is composed of 64% food waste (17.6 million tons)
Despite Southeast Asia receiving attention for its mismanaged plastic waste, food waste is produced and wasted at a much higher rate than plastic waste, and contributes considerable short and long-term environmental risks.
A closer look at the composition of Southeast Asia’s waste reveals that the region (Singapore excepting) has a far larger problem with food and organic waste than with plastics specifically.
Why Is Food Waste So Prevalent In Southeast Asia?
In certain ways, the reasons for food wastage in Southeast Asia are the same as those in North America. The market is the market, and companies the world over play by the same rules: consumers' high standards for the outward appearance of their food means that a lot of "ugly food" that is otherwise perfectly edible is wasted needlessly.
However, there are some notable differences in Southeast Asia's supply chain and food system infrastructure that make food waste particularly prevalent in this region. While post-consumer losses are still considerable in higher-income (urban) areas in Southeast Asia, lower-income (rural) areas suffer a majority of losses before products even reach supermarket shelves.
A Challenging Time & Place for Farmers
Food waste occurs at all stages of the food system's supply chain: from field, to fork. While post-consumer waste accounts for 47% of all food wastage globally, food loss (that which occurs before food reaches the point of sale) is equally critical. Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to food loss, as we shall see.
Unless food production occurs in highly controlled indoor spaces (such as geothermal gardens or indoor hydroponic systems), the production of food across the globe is highly reliant on the particular climate in which that food is grown or raised.
The FAO estimates the carbon footprint of food waste is 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year
With the advent of "freak weather" resulting from climate change, many regional micro-climates are no longer predictable. This, in turn, destabilizes local farming operations.
Southeast Asia is prone to annual monsoons, which - if they occur at the right time, and for the normal duration, as they have done for years - can add fertility to the land, supporting a bountiful harvest. However, as climate change continues to exacerbate "freak" weather occurrences, monsoon season has become increasingly erratic.
The number of "extreme rainfall events" have tripled between 1950 and 2015, with corresponding drought periods also increasing in length and severity. Unseasonal drought is followed by excessive torrential downpour which cannot be absorbed by the soil, and leads to mudslides and floods. (Sierra Club, 2019)
Climate change and environmental degradation will exacerbate current food production challenges by reducing available arable land, crop yields and farm output
With the ever-increasing severity of weather disturbances, food production is strongly affected, as are the people who rely on farming for their livelihoods. Whole harvests can be lost as a result of an extreme monsoon season.
To make up for the risks posed by inclement weather, farmers will usually over-plant in an attempt to mitigate potential losses. If conditions are favourable, this over-planting results in a gross surplus of product which they cannot sell, and must dispose of.
The Socioeconomics of Farming
Agriculture accounts for a considerable portion of Southeast Asian countries' GDP contribution, and employs an equally substantial percentage of the workforce. Despite agriculture's prominence in Southeast Asia, the vast majority of food producers live below the poverty line.
Unlike the broad-scale farming operations of North America, Southeast Asia's food production primarily occurs on small-scale farm holdings.
75% of Southeast Asia's poor reside in rural areas and the majority are dependent on agriculture to earn a living
While small-scale farming can and should be both more productive and sustainable than conventional "mega-farms", poverty makes the idyllic vision of the successful garden-farmer inaccessible to most Southeast Asian farmers.
Few farmers can afford to invest in technological innovation which would streamline crop maintenance and harvesting, thus reducing the amount of wasted food at the production level.
"Agritech" has long been the domain of those farm holdings which can afford the time and expense of purchasing or renting the product itself, and also learn how to use it properly. The small-scale farmers making up the vast majority of Southeast Asia's agricultural sector do not have room in their budget for such technologies.
The results are unanimous: consumers prefer "attractive" fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown that consumers do not like to purchase "ugly" produce as these items subconsciously lower their own sense of self-worth by increasing negative self-image in relation to the ugly foods.
72% of shoppers will expressly avoid purchasing "ugly" produce
This entirely superficial preference on the part of consumers means that supermarkets, restaurants and farmers trash billions of dollars of edible food every year. Farmers leave at least 30% of the food they've grown to rot in the field, while 34% of supermarkets simply dispose of the items they deem to be too unattractive to sell. Another 34% severely discount "ugly" produce, which may further stigmatize the products as being of "lesser value" than "pretty" produce.
Note that this food waste at the consumer level - which could easily be mitigated by targeted marketing campaigns and consumer education - is an avoidable by-product of middle-to-higher income consumer habits. For those who cannot easily access food - attractive or otherwise - such as the rural poor, wastage (or loss) occurs at the pre-consumer level, though still often resulting from a desire to meet the aesthetic demands of the higher-income consumer.
A rapidly rising middle class in Southeast Asia is also having a powerful effect on post-consumer food waste. Rapid urbanization and increased purchasing power has similarly increased consumption, and proportionately increased waste from all sectors - but particularly food.
The buying habits of newly middle-class consumers have shifted from traditional buying practices: consumers no longer buy a day's worth of food at their nearest market, but shop once or twice a week at the local supermarket. This practice encourages over-buying which almost always results in food waste at the post-consumer level, and increased food loss from long distance transportation of produce at pre-consumer levels, in the attempts to meet growing consumer demand.
Infrastructural Gaps in the Food System
Insufficient Cold Storage
Many lower-income regions in Southeast Asia do not have sufficient infrastructure to support the mass transportation and storage of food. In some impoverished rural areas, food is not transported by refrigerated vans: perishable items such as dairy, fish, meat, produce and fruit are often lost while on the road.
The amount of fruit and vegetables wasted annually as a result of insufficient cold storage in India is equivalent in value to $6.2 billion (USD)
As this wastage occurs predominantly along supply chains headed to more remote and rural locations in more impoverished countries, these losses disproportionately affect lower-income inhabitants.
Linear Food System
Like their neighbours in the West, very little has been done in Southeast Asia to curb post-consumer waste and make better use of available - and perfectly edible - resources. The amount of food waste in Southeast Asia alone could feed the world's hungry. Structural changes need to be put in place before this food can be made available to those who need it.
What Are the Impacts of Southeast Asia's Food Waste Problem?
The impacts of Southeast Asia's food waste crisis are far-reaching, affecting millions of people, and generating harmful emissions which exacerbate global climate change.
Southeast Asia's waste stream is predominantly sent to landfill. Over half of Southeast Asia's landfilled waste is food waste. Food waste biodegrades anaerobically and generates millions of tonnes of methane gas every year. Methane gas is ~25X worse for the environment than CO2, and 84X worse over a 20 year period.
Whatever does not remain in landfill is incinerated. Waste incineration is catastrophically bad for the environment: burning waste generates 2.5X as much CO2 as a coal power plant to generate the same amount of electricity.
The Asia Pacific region, including Southeast Asia, is home to 536 million people who cannot access food - that is 62% of the world's undernourished.
As we've seen, food waste - as opposed to food loss - is predominantly generated by middle-to-higher income consumers. 64% of all post-consumer food waste is still perfectly edible. This food "waste" could and should be repurposed to feed the hungry. Improved post-retail supply chains are needed in order to make edible food available to those in need.
Unless they are directly involved in handling waste, most people adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, making them unlikely to commit to drastic yet necessary lifestyle changes.
As it stands, waste is predominantly generated by middle-income consumers, and left to the poorest of the country to sort. Entire communities in Southeast Asia make a living off scavenging open dump sites, putting themselves at serious risk of contracting disease and infection. Indeed, many cannot afford to feed themselves, and so look for food in the mountains of trash.
Despite initiatives to tackle the waste problem in Southeast Asia, the majority of food and recyclable waste ends up in landfills or open dumps. Recycling rates are well below 50%, and governments across the region are attempting to increase adoption among consumers. In many parts of Southeast Asia open dump sites are the norm despite governmental efforts to curb the hazardous practice, such as Indonesia's Waste Management Law of 2008.
Indeed, as consumption rates increase and too few resources are available to stem the flood of waste to landfills, existing sanitary landfills are actually being turned into open dump sites. These sites pose serious health, safety and environmental dangers to proximal communities.
Groundwater pollution from leachate, a partial by-product of food waste in landfills, is a common threat to local health. Lingering odour and air particulates, too, affect the quality of life of neighbouring communities. The role of food waste here is clear: landfill odour is almost entirely caused by food decomposing in dump sites. Without food waste, landfills would be drier, less odorous, and far easier to manage and maintain safely.
As we've seen, 64% of food waste is avoidable. This portion of food waste should be managed in such a way as to make it easily accessible to those who need it - and not by scavenging dangerous open dump sites.
Start-ups have already begun attempting to bridge the gap between food waste and hunger:
UglyFood Singapore redistributes "ugly" produce that would otherwise have been disposed of by retailers
GrubCycle in Malaysia sells surplus food from retailers and restaurants at a discounted price, allowing establishments to make money on what would otherwise be wasted overhead, and gives people an opportunity to eat well, for less.
Garda Pangan (Indonesia) saves food from hospitality retailers and redistributes to those in need. Edible food is given to hungry families, while expired food is given to farmers to be turned into fertilizer or animal feed.
To account for the remaining 36%, non-edible and unavoidable food waste, innovative solutions should be put in place to successfully collect and divert organic material before it is sent to landfill.
In fact, most of the reports of the environmental impact of food waste do not actually account for the transportation of that waste to dump sites, despite waste transportation accounting for considerable CO2 emissions, implying that the most environmentally responsible way to process food waste is on-site, at the source of disposal.
I believe the priority in waste management at the national level should be food waste. Once this wet and heavy type of waste has been isolated, the remaining dry waste would be easy to handle.
Indeed, local waste processing programs have been successfully deployed in small Southeast Asian communities, such as bank sampah in Indonesia. Households sort their own trash into organic and inorganic streams, and then deposit these at a central waste bank for further processing, receiving payment for their sorted trash.
In addition to community and federal incentives to adjust the direction in which waste streams flow, technological and systems innovation start-ups are proving to be highly valuable in Southeast Asia's fight against food waste.
Good for Food Singapore uses AI and advanced data analytics via a "smart dustbin" to track and analyze the types of waste being generated by businesses.
Cocopallet in the Philippines uses coconut husk waste to create eco-friendly pallets as a forest-friendly alternative to timber pallets
Crust Group in Singapore takes old bread products and turns them into craft beer, which they can then co-brand with the hotels and restaurants from which they source their ingredients.
ListenField (Thailand) helps farmers farm smarter with a climate- and crop-tracking smart tool that provides actionable information for a more seamless and sustainable growing season
Onsite Processing A Short & Long-term Answer to Food Waste
Greentech is one of the fastest-growing industries across the globe. Innovation is making seemingly impossible feats an everyday occurrence for millions worldwide, and the food waste management sector is no exception.
Onsite waste processing provides both residential consumers and retailers an opportunity to quickly and easily process food waste without leaving their home. While community waste processing programs and backyard compost systems are excellent methods to divert waste, these initiatives do not always pan out. Compost piles are not small-space friendly: multi-home buildings do not offer opportunity for residents to compost on their own.
Home composting can divert up to 150 kg of food waste per household annually.
Community composting programs require planning, organization and a host of volunteers/employees to properly manage the pile and ensure that waste is properly sorted. Further, not every community has an available lot which can be used for the purpose of collecting and sorting waste.
Small-scale, onsite waste processing - or electric composters - allow consumers to eliminate their food waste at the source without the inconvenience of composting or sorting waste for post-consumer processing.
Innovations such as the FoodCycler can eliminate up to 2.5 liters of food waste every 4-6 hours. These machines are small, compact and intended to be run indoors. They emit no odours and make very little noise. They require little energy to run, and can reduce food waste (including meat, dairy and some bones) by up to 90%.
One of the benefits of "electric composters" and other small-scale onsite waste processing is that their convenience increases program adoption. Programs which demand too great a lifestyle change in consumers - such as backyard composting, or reduction of overall consumption - are unlikely to become lasting habits.
As we've seen, middle-income consumers are responsible for the majority of avoidable food waste. This demographic is also the best educated and most financially able to invest in technologies which make their lives easier, their kitchens cleaner, and align best with their values.
By appealing to both the love of convenience of modern consumers, and a burgeoning sense of environmental stewardship, electric composters can successfully stop waste at its source: the modern, middle-class consumer.