Try and picture this in your mind’s eye: After queueing up and purchasing food from a popular hawker stall, you go to a table where the leftover food is being poured into a waste bin, before you sit down to enjoy your meal. Sometimes, one-tenth of the food is discarded, while at other times, one-eighth, one-fifth, or even one-third of it is thrown away. Don’t you find such a scenario ludicrous?
Yet, such a seemingly ridiculous scenario is being acted out frequently in real life. In our hawker centres and food courts, we often see leftover food on the tables, all awaiting to be cleared away. If a diner had to first dispose of the portion of food that he could not finish, then he might come to realise how inexcusable it was to have leftovers and throw them away!
Singapore is regarded as a “food paradise” in Southeast Asia, and we can taste tasty dishes from practically every land around the world here. However, besides the insatiable palate and appetite of diners who are spoilt for choices, it also comes with an obscene amount of food wastage. Of course, there are many reasons behind the food wastage, such as the discarding of food that does not suit our palates, or preparation of too much food that resulted in leftovers, portions of food being filtered out in the process of being packed, etc.
Rich food fare, but abundant leftovers
With the prevalence of Singapore’s rich food culture, especially among gatherings over meals, there is an unspoken mindset of “the more is merrier”, in addition to the need to satisfy everyone’s palate. Even in the case of lone diners, leftovers are still quite common.
According to a study by the National Environment Agency (NEA), a whopping 796,000 metric tonnes of food were wasted in 2013, an alarming figure that grew 13% over the year before. Using the year 2012 as an example, when we compare the amount of food wasted against the food produced and food import/export figures, it reveals a starkly alarming trend.
From the figures above, we can derive these shocking findings:
- Singapore’s food wastage was almost equivalent to half the amount of total food imports
- On average, each person wasted about 132 kg of food in 2012, which was about half of our per capita food consumption (262 kg)
If everyone could minimise food wastage, and be mindful while preparing and enjoying food, we would be able to save a considerable amount of food annually. Then, we can reduce the import of food and our reliance on foreign food sources. The resulting food savings (non-perishable foods with long shelf life) would be able to meet the consumption needs of all residents for as long as several months.
According to a report in Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore’s main Chinese newspaper), the amount of food wastage in 2013 (796,000 metric tons) had struck a 6-year record high. The obscene amount of food wasted was enough to fill up 1,420 Airbus 380 commercial planes!
Where did all the leftover food go?
In 2012, only 12 percent of food leftovers (kitchen waste) were recycled; in 2013, the “recycled food” figure similarly stood at 12%. The remaining 88% of food waste was sent to an incinerator plant to be burnt into ashes and buried in Semakau Landfill.
From 2008 till 2011, a portion of the food waste collected was sent to the Waste-to-Energy (WTE) Plants. In such a plant, the debris among the food waste (such as plastic bags, Styrofoam, etc.) is first extracted, then the kitchen waste is stirred and mixed up before being stored in large vats for fermentation. Over a span of 21 days, the biogas generated can be used to generate (electrical) energy sufficient to supply the needs of 8000 HDB households. The residue left behind after the fermentation process can then be further treated as compost.
Try to imagine this scenario: Before we enjoy our meals, we first pour away some food. The food is collected before being sent to a WTE plant, and the electricity generated by the plant is then used to power the light bulbs over our dining table. This may seem to be a far-fetched idea, but why should we use such an extensive process to deal with food?
The primary purpose of food is to help us maintain our body functions, not to generate electricity. Rather than generating leftovers, why don’t we exercise greater caution in our handling and enjoyment of food, and practise food saving?
Saving food to bless others
Although the Chinese characters for “leftover” and “savings” sound very similar, their meanings are vastly different. If we are able to transform a food “leftover” culture into a “food-saving” culture by cutting down on food waste, the money saved could be donated to help others in need. The act of saving food and helping others is a form of blessings unto others.
Besides, this will also lower the total consumption of food. In others words, our dependence on imported food will also decrease and our food reserves (non-perishable foods with long shelf life) will increase. This will contribute to the security of our nation’s food supply, and be a blessing to our society.
Tzu Chi has been actively advocating the practice of “eating until 80% full and using the remaining 20% to help others”. Its aim is to help us cultivate a habit of saving food and sowing blessings through our daily eating habits. By reducing 20% of our food portion for each meal, we can donate the money saved to help those who really need it. “Eating until 80% full” is not so drastic as to affect our health or nutritional intake, and the resources saved are indeed very important to those who really need them.
Before it was revamped in 2017, Tzu Chi Singapore’s Seeds of Hope Financial Assistance Scheme provided monthly allowances to needy students, to help offset their meals and transport expenses in schools. The students would get $2 of meal allowance on each school day. Hence, if we saved $1 each day, then we would be able to cover the daily meal allowance of one needy student in every two days. So long as every person sets an intention to save on food daily, the collective savings of every person on food and money can indeed bring blessings to many people in need.
Cultivate mindful eating habits for a blessed life
Besides “saving” on food, we also need to exercise “prudence” in dealing with food. Food is a blessing from Heaven and Earth. It is produced through the hard toils of many people, before being presented at our dining tables for our enjoyment and the nourishment of our bodies.
In affluent Singapore, most people are well provided for. Even the poor will also receive food donations from generous people. Hence, we have never experienced famine before. Even so, we still need to be mindful of dangers while living in relative ease, because practically all of our food is imported from overseas. So, the availability of our food supply is subject to uncertainty……
Tan Chee Sing is a Tzu Chi volunteer who works as an assistant architect. He actively advocates simple and environmentally friendly home designs that are also economical and practical. He believes that our home environment is greatly influential in shaping our personality, improving society, and enhancing universal values and beauty.
Article originally posted on Singapore Tzu Chi World Journal, Issue 55