Live more, Waste less

Tackling food waste at home

More than 26,000 tonnes of unconsumed food worth $342 million is thrown away by households every year because it was not stored or handled properly, or was bought without thinking. But things may be changing, according to a survey last year by the National Environment Agency, which found that consumers are more environmentally conscious now when they shop, cook and cater. The Sunday Times, in partnership with DBS Bank, gets to the bottom of things, as Judith Tan and Vanessa Liu raid two homes to see if the findings are true.

One FM 91.3 DJ Angelique Teo with her compact composter, which is based on a Japanese fermentation method that uses soil containing micro-organisms to cover food waste.
One FM 91.3 DJ Angelique Teo with her compact composter, which is based on a Japanese fermentation method that uses soil containing micro-organisms to cover food waste. ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN
You can save money by growing your own herbs to be used in your cooking.
You can save money by growing your own herbs to be used in your cooking. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO
Consumers are often unaware of how much waste they accumulate through their consumption habits, with the average Singapore household throwing away 5kg of food yearly.
Consumers are often unaware of how much waste they accumulate through their consumption habits, with the average Singapore household throwing away 5kg of food yearly. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO
ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN

The average Singapore household throws away 5kg of food waste every week. This might not seem much, but taken together, it means 26,000 tonnes and $342 million ending up in the landfill.

Half of it need not have been thrown away, which is why 47-year-old One FM 91.3 DJ Angelique Teo takes pains to make sure that does not happen in her home.

Ms Teo, who lives with her husband in an apartment in Yio Chu Kang, says her strategy is to plan ahead and make conscious choices. Both she and her husband are vegan, and eat no meat, eggs or dairy products.

“I do a weekly grocery run online and I buy exactly what we need for our daily salads. For example, I may get four boxes of coriander, four boxes of kale, some cherry tomatoes and lemons – just the right amount,” she says.

In addition to buying just enough for their meals, Ms Teo, who helms the evening drive-time show, also stores dried foods such as nuts and mushrooms, and freezes herbs in recycled glass jars.

“I get my dried goods in bulk from the zero-waste shop just down the road.”

The goods have no packaging, so the glass jars come in handy.

“They are also handy when I’m freezing things like chilli padi, which I have to have, and herbs, which wilt quickly,” adds Ms Teo.

“I wash them, chop them, bottle them and put them straight into the freezer to have at any time.”

It may be easier to reduce food waste when there are only two in the household.

But at the seven-member Ho household in Kovan, minimising food waste has also become a habit.

  • 26,000

    Tonnes of food wasted by households every year that comes from improper storage and handling.

The mistress of the home, vice-president of payments and platforms at DBS Bank Jennifer Yong, 50, says she goes to the wet market in Chinatown every Sunday to stock up on groceries, “mainly meats, bones for soup and vegetables”.

“I have three generations under one roof – my parents, my boys, my husband and myself and our Burmese helper. Catering to each and everyone’s tastes can be a rather daunting task,” she says.

“But we are very conscious not to overbuy or overstock items each time. Although we have two fridges in the home, we would rather buy less than more.”

Then, as and when it is needed, more can be bought, she says.

“With two teenage sons who are often ravenous, I do have to check with my helper by Wednesday if there is still enough food in the fridge.

“If not, I’ll have her go to the wet market here in Kovan to replenish our supplies.”

The Hos also prefer to have a greater variety of smaller plates of food at dinner, which also helps to generate less waste.

“We cook smaller portions for the common dishes at mealtimes, instead of large portions. This works because we can have more variety at the table.

“Should there not be enough of, say, vegetables, then we will cook an additional dish during the meal. Besides reducing our food waste with no leftovers, everyone gets to enjoy his or her favourite dishes.”

Those managing Singapore’s landfill would welcome it if more households practised sensible habits when eating at home.

A study by the Singapore Environment Council last year found that the 26,000 tonnes of food wasted by households every year comes from improper storage and handling. Often, consumers are unaware of how much waste can be accumulated through their consumption habits.

In a Sunday Times poll of 1,000 residents conducted by online market research firm Milieu Insight in October, fewer than one in six got it right that food waste from households added up to a total of $342 million every year.

The vast majority underestimated the amount, and nearly all respondents said their households threw away only small or “reasonable” amounts of food.

Asked 14 multiple-choice questions, such as the difference between “sell by”, “use by” and “best before” dates, and how soon the Semakau Landfill would reach capacity, close to half got fewer than seven right.

Food waste is a problem not just because it adds to Singapore’s only landfill – which is expected to be full by 2035 – but also because of the significant amount of resources and energy wasted that goes into growing, processing and transporting food.

SUNDAY TIMES GRAPHICS

Ms Teo and Ms Yong decided instead to recycle their food waste by composting it.

Ms Teo notes that in the landfill, food scraps do not break down easily due to a lack of oxygen.

Broken down by micro-organisms in the absence of oxygen, they emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is absorbed into the atmosphere, contributing to temperatures rising.

A 2018 Oxford University study, published in the journal Science, found food wastage to be responsible for about 6 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

About half the emissions come from the anaerobic fermentation of solid waste disposal on land.

Source: MILIEU INSIGHT SUNDAY TIMES GRAPHICS

In her apartment, Ms Teo uses a compact composter acquired from The Green Collective SG, a group of sustainable brand owners, conscious consumers and businesses.

The Urban Composter was designed by Australian Luke Gregory, and is based on the Japanese fermentation method called bokashi, which uses soil containing micro-organisms to cover food waste.

Ms Teo says: “After putting the scraps in the composter, I use an accelerator made from fermented fruit extract to hasten the process.

“I spray three to five squirts each time I pile on more scraps and about a week and a half later, I get compost juice.”

She dilutes the sour-smelling leachate, called bokashi tea, and sprays it on her potted plants as a fertiliser.

Ms Teo adds, laughing: “Bokashi tea also has a superpower. It is completely natural, and when it is concentrated, it helps unclog the drains. I have very good flowing sinks in my house all the time because of bokashi tea that comes from the composting.”

Ms Yong uses a different method to compost leftover food.

“Nothing goes to waste. I created a bin from an old waste bin in the kitchen and repurposed it for composting. I put in the food waste and let it break down on its own.

“To mask the smell, I throw pandan leaves in.”

Ms Yong says she uses the compost on her patio plants and no longer has to buy soil or fertiliser.


DBS Bank vice-president of payments and platforms Jennifer Yong, 50, with her Burmese helper Naw Po Dar Li Aye Do, 28, preparing dinner for the family of seven. PHOTO: JENNIFER YONG

Last year, she also grew her own herbs and vegetables, such as Thai basil, red spinach, bok choy and dou miao.

She empties the compost bin once every six months, and throws some of it around the plants in front of her condominium block.

“The compost goes both to my plants and the grounds at the condo, which is why the plants there are thriving,” she says.

While composting has yet to become common in Singapore, a survey commissioned last year by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to track the sentiments of Singapore residents about food waste found that the public has become more environmentally conscious in shopping, cooking, eating and catering.

While taking small steps as a consumer can be significant in achieving the larger goal of shrinking food waste to a minimum, Ms Yong would like to see schoolchildren taught practical ways of how to do this at home.

She says: “The reason why cutting food waste in Japan is successful is that it is taught to children as early as in kindergarten.

“Perhaps NEA would like to work with the Education Ministry to have lessons on food waste included in the social studies curriculum. This way, we can ensure that Singapore reaches its zero-waste goal.”

  • IN PARTNERSHIP WITH

  • DBS is raising awareness of the push towards zero food waste, as part of its commitment to building a sustainable future. Let’s all play our part, starting with our very next meal.


Tips for the kitchen

• Keep garlic and onions fresh by putting them in mesh bags or unused stockings, which help keep moisture at bay.

• To prevent bananas from ripening too fast, wrap the stem with a plastic wrap. This prevents ethylene gas, produced naturally in the ripening process, from reaching other parts of the fruit and prematurely ripening it.

• To make celery last longer, trim the leafy tops before wrapping the celery ribs tightly in foil and refrigerating. Save the leaves for a tasty salad.

• Keep herbs fresh and handy by mixing chopped herbs with butter or olive oil and freezing them in an ice cube tray. Use the frozen cubes to season steaks, chicken cutlets, fish or steamed vegetables. You can also defrost them to spread on toast.

• Save money by growing your own ingredients. You can throw leftover ginger, garlic or scallions into a pot of soil. You will get a new pot of ingredients in just two weeks.


Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2020, with the headline 'Tackling food waste at home'. Subscribe