Planners look to big data and other solutions to reduce the enormous amount of food being thrown away
Aware that one-third of all food produced in the world is thrown away, governments, institutions and organizations are working on minimizing food waste. In China alone, enough food is discarded in restaurants annually to feed between 30 million and 50 million people.
China's challenges were highlighted in late November, when Cheng Shengkui from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Food Waste Forum in Beijing that 17 to 18 million tons of food were wasted in China each year from 2013 to 2015.
Cheng and his team from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research surveyed almost 7,000 tables and 366 restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and the southwestern cities of Lhasa and Chengdu.
Cooks prepare food at a restaurant in Chengdu, in Southwest China's Sichuan province, on Sept 8 last year. It is estimated that enough food is discarded in restaurants annually in China to feed between 30 million and 50 million people.(Image from China Daily)
The team interviewed hundreds of people, collated 7,500 questionnaires and weighed 32,000 dishes. Cheng presented the findings at the seminar hosted by organizations including the United Nations Environment Programme.
"It is no secret that food loss and waste is a big problem," says Xie Yuhong, deputy secretary-general of the All-China Environment Federation, a nongovernmental organization supervised by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, during the forum.
The problems are myriad, from the methane gas released by food waste into the atmosphere to the fact that discarded food could help to alleviate poverty.
One piece of good news is that there are multiple ways to reduce this type of waste, says Luca Mantovani, a consultant at PDA cademia who specializes in facilities management.
Big data, for example, can help cafeterias at large companies cut down on waste. Some are tying food production to data from smart cards that employees use to enter buildings.
In effect, cafeteria operators can know almost exactly how many people are in the building and how many will go to eat. Big data can also determine what dishes are popular and what dishes are not on given days, depending on who is at work.
"There are buildings that go all out," says Mantovani. "The recycling business in China is quite big."
The food that consumers throw away is at the tail end of a chain of waste that starts much earlier.
In a 2015 study, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum found that 54 percent of waste comes from production, handling, storage, processing and packaging - in other words, in the supply of food. The remaining 46 percent is on the demand side of the equation, including distribution and consumption.
Campaigns are under way to reduce this massive footprint. In 2013, for example, the United Nations Environment Programme along with partners launched the Think.Eat.Save initiative to reduce waste.
At a more local level, the issue is also significant. In Hong Kong, waste of all types is straining the city's infrastructure to its breaking point. Most discarded food in the city ends up in landfills along with other types of municipal solid waste, which is general garbage from the domestic, commercial and industrial sectors.
Some 5.5 million tons of solid waste ended up in Hong Kong's landfills in 2015, with a full third of that being food. The numbers have risen every year since 2010.
"The current practice of disposing of biodegradable food waste at landfills is not sustainable," says the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department.
"Reducing food waste disposal at landfills is an important part of the government's plan for waste management."
Food is the single largest category of waste in Hong Kong's landfills and the amount is growing every year. Programs are in place to deal with the problem and the government is working to implement a strategy.
"Our wasteful habits put tremendous pressure on the entire waste chain," noted the Hong Kong Environment Bureau (which formulates policies to protect the environment and also enforces related legislation) in a blueprint for the sustainable use of resources for 2013 to 2022.
"We have a large 'waste load'. Over the years, Hong Kong people have become more, not less, wasteful," it says.
Implemented in 2014, the blueprint called for a reduction of solid waste disposal of 20 percent by this year and 40 percent by 2022.
By 2013, the daily per capita rate of municipal solid waste had risen to 1.27 kilograms, from 0.97 about a decade earlier. The numbers continued to rise through 2015. At the same time, recycling rates dropped by about a quarter in the decade leading up to 2015.
"It is a pretty protracted process," says Gerald Patchell, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Municipalities in Japan, South Korea and North America all move much faster. In the United States, for example, San Francisco processes all of its waste.
"People make excuses for Hong Kong, and to a certain extent it is valid, about the structure of the city and the environment in a lot of the buildings not having facilities for this type of thing," Patchell says.
"Probably the biggest bugbear is this idea that everything is dealt with in Hong Kong."
In other large cities around the world, trash is sent to the outskirts or hinterland. Hong Kong does not have a big enough region to do that, unless it sends its waste to the Chinese mainland.
Personal space is also smaller in Hong Kong, so not a lot of room exists to store, say, multiple containers for different types of trash.
One effective program is run by the Airport Authority Hong Kong, the government body which manages the international airport. Since 2003, it has been building and expanding the infrastructure to recycle and dispose of food waste, which is composted into soil used for landscaping.
In 2011, the program expanded to collect waste from 17 partners and distribute it to a company that converts it into animal feed. A pilot program in 2014 included a shopping mall near the airport. Some 1,200 tons of food waste were collected from the airport in 2015.
That same year, 32 tons of surplus food was picked up in Hong Kong by Food Angel, a nongovernmental organization, and was used to produce 25,000 meal boxes for the city's poor.
The airport program is unique but relatively small compared to the thousands of tons of waste that ends up in Hong Kong's three operating landfills.
The Hong Kong government aims to develop five to six organic waste treatment facilities that can recycle as much as 1,500 tons per day. The first of these plants began construction in 2014 and is expected to be commissioned this year. It has the capacity to treat as much as 200 tons per day. A second plant, with a daily capacity of 300 tons, is still in the planning stages.
But the sheer amount of food waste is creating or exacerbating problems in Hong Kong.
There is simply no space to put all that waste. Already, the city's three landfills are running out of space and will all be full by 2019. Hong Kong has already closed 13 landfills.
Joyce Chan is the chief operations officer at the Foodlink Foundation, a Hong Kong charity dedicated to reducing food waste. She noted that repurposing food to feed those in need would "not have an enormous impact on the total amount of food waste that is being disposed into our landfills, but it is still necessary, especially when there is a social need for good-quality, edible food".
But dealing with the issue will require a holistic approach, according to Chan, who says the biggest issues relate to the "displacement of responsibility".
"We should not assume that food waste is the responsibility of the food industry, as it is largely demand-driven," says Chan.
"If consumers are more conscious of the amount of food waste they generate and everyone plays a role in minimizing their personal food waste, then we can do better as a community." (China Daily)