Growing up in Singapore, Ms Rachel Tan tossed leftover food in the trash without a thought. It was only when she moved to Minnesota in the United States as a student that she realised food waste could be turned into something useful .
The 21-year-old, who majors in Latin American studies and international studies at liberal arts college Macalester, was won over by her college's composting culture - so much so that when the opportunity arose, she wrote home about it.
Last month, she took part in the "My Future SG" contest. Her entry, which suggested incorporating composting into Singapore's waste-disposal system, earned the most votes online and bagged her two flight tickets home to Singapore.
Composting is a process in which food waste is stored and degrades slowly over time into nutrient-rich matter, which can then be recycled as soil fertiliser.
In her submission, she wrote: "All food waste from our hawkers, offices and homes can be turned into plant fertiliser and be returned back to earth." She pointed out that compost costs half as much as traditional soil, and would also reduce the amount of trash we produce.
"In the state of Minnesota, it's very expensive to send trash to facilities as there is a tax, whereas if you recycle or compost, it's not taxed at all."
MS RACHEL TAN, on the need for the Government to invest in inculcating a composting culture
"Composting is an economically viable solution for environmental stress on Pulau Semakau."
Referring to the favourite Singaporean pastime of eating, she concluded: "We could turn our city into a food paradise that is environmentally sustainable."
In a Skype interview from the US, she said it was unexpectedly easy for her to get into the habit of composting at Macalester, which aims to produce zero waste by 2020.
Her college dormitory is fully equipped with compost bins and there are signs everywhere to tell students what can be composted - apple cores, chicken bones, banana peels - and what cannot.
She admitted that it might be a struggle to change Singaporeans' mindset towards the practice.
"There's a big misconception that composting is smelly or attracts disease. But if you do it right, if you have a proper bin in your garden, it has no smell at all."
She also stressed the need for the Government to invest in inculcating a composting culture islandwide - by sponsoring compost bins, for instance, or offering tax reductions for compostable products. She said: "In the state of Minnesota, it's very expensive to send trash to facilities as there is a tax, whereas if you recycle or compost, it's not taxed at all."
Environmentalists such as Ms Bhavani Prakash, founder of green website Eco Walk the Talk, said composting is not prevalent in Singapore now, but commended the approach. "Islandwide composting means less use of synthetic fertilisers in landscaping," said Ms Prakash, who has been composting in her rooftop garden for five years.
Environmental activist Olivia Choong said the practice is not costly, unless one chooses to invest in state-of-the-art composting bins. She said: "The most expensive part would be educating people on what can and cannot be composted."
Ms Tan said she was excited that her idea had given her the chance to return home for the SG50 National Day Parade and the Sing50 concert. "If I didn't win, I would probably have to wake up at 5am to watch the parade online," she added.