More than we can chew

It’s Saturday evening, and your run-of-the-mill Singaporean is out to enjoy some hawker fare. He places his order on the spur of the moment, with one goal in mind – to sample as many dishes as possible.

But now that the hunger pangs are starting to settle, that generous helping of nasi padang doesn’t look as appetizing as it did before. After some unenthusiastic picking at the sweet-and-sour pork, he decides that he’s had enough for the night. So he takes one last bite, washes it down with coffee, and gathers his belongings – leaving behind two mugs and seven plates of half-eaten food.

Photo by Sasha Mison.
Photo by Sasha Mison.

The person described above was not an SAS student, but the experience is relatable. “I always order more than I can eat,” admitted senior Linda Sun, when asked about her own habits of ordering at hawker stalls. “I feel really bad. I’m trying to change it, but it hasn’t worked.” Luckily, her mom is usually willing to lend some help with the extra food.

Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing and even Instagram-ing what we eat. Too often, we forget about what we don’t eat. Statistics from the National Environment Agency show that food waste in Singapore increases annually. In fact, a record-breaking 796,000 tons of food were thrown out in 2013. Only 10% of that was recycled, mostly as animal feed.

The truth is that in the past few decades, food production has soared, thanks to innovations in agricultural technology. We currently produce more than enough to feed all 7.125 billion people on the planet.

So why is it that one in eight people still goes to bed hungry every night?

Food waste is one answer to that question. And sadly, it happens at every step of the production chain – from farms to retailers, eateries to homes. At markets, fruits and vegetables are ‘filtered out’ because they don’t look very attractive. Leftovers from an all-you-can-eat buffet may wind up in the garbage. If a product hasn’t left the shelf by its sell-by date, it’s probably destined for the landfill. And the list goes on.

When we toss aside our bruised fruits or burned meat, there’s a lot more than just calories going to waste. Take a fried egg, for instance. The chicken that laid the egg would have consumed a lot of water and animal feed over its lifetime. Plenty of manpower went into packaging, transporting and distributing the eggs it produced. So, when you decide you don’t like your eggs sunny-side up after all, you’ve just squandered all the effort, money and resources that transported it from the farm to your fork.

Of course, the average consumer is not going to over-analyze everything they throw out.

“I hate bread crusts. They taste horrible…and they’re scratchy,” said one junior, who prefers not to be named. Another student expressed a strong dislike of apple peels and tries to avoid them whenever possible. It’s true that on an individual scale, a few uneaten crusts or peels might not seem like a big deal. But fall into this thinking trap, and you end up with a situation like Singapore’s: a tiny island nation that wasted enough food to fill 1,420 Airbus A380s last year.

Discarding excess food has become a habit, one that reflects the dark side of consumerism. Authors Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss believe that this attitude is a symptom of “Affluenza,” which they describe as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

SAS is not immune to the affluenza epidemic, either: Head of Facilities Anthony Wong revealed that the school generated more than 65 tons(!) of food waste last year.

The Eco-Wiz Food Digester is efficient at converting food waste into water. Wong remarked that traces of grease are occasionally left behind, but for the most part, the machine is surprisingly low maintenance.
The Eco-Wiz Food Digester is efficient at converting food waste into water. Wong remarked that traces of grease are occasionally left behind, but for the most part, the machine is surprisingly low maintenance.

Thankfully, a significant portion of it is recycled through our Eco-Wiz food digester, which turns food products into water in less than 24 hours. It sounds like magic, but there’s a scientific explanation: the machine creates an internal environment that is ideal for microbes, which then dramatically speed up decomposition.

The water produced is released into our storm drains, where it will return to Singapore’s reservoirs to be processed, purified and reused. As Wong explained, this method is much more eco-friendly than “disposing it in the traditional way in the landfill or incinerator.”

There are forces working behind-the-scenes to minimize food waste in our cafeterias, too. Ms. Soh, who works in the high school branch of Mr. Ho’s kitchen, explains: “We give the staff [any food that isn’t sold by the end of the day]. Sometimes we give it to the custodians.” But she also does her best to make sure that the staff themselves only take as much as they can eat.

At the end of each day, instead of throwing out the unsold food, employees from Mr. Ho's kitchen get to take home the leftovers.
At the end of each day, instead of throwing out the unsold food, employees from Mr. Ho’s kitchen get to take home the leftovers.

Even with all the strides that SAS staff have made, there’s definitely room for improvement. Wong said, “[The machine]’s got a 500kg capacity, but we are only processing 200kg a day,” and those are just the food scraps from the kitchens. “If we can get students to separate their waste into organic and nonorganic, my sense is that we can increase our food waste recycling capacity to about 350kg.”

The Middle School Global Issues Network (GIN) club is working on an initiative to reduce food wastage. They hope to implement a system where students and faculty sort their own trash – food scraps go in one bin, non-compostable trash in the other (or better yet, into the recycling bins). By collecting data on how much food is thrown out on the consumer level in SAS, we as a community can set realistic goals to reduce that amount.

Food for Thought

This holiday season, consider taking a few steps to reduce your own food-print. Check out the list below, and feel free to comment with more suggestions!

  • At a Restaurant:
    • Order the right portion for you.
    • Eating with friends? Order dishes to share!
    • Try not to order too many dishes at once. If necessary, you can add on to your order later.
    • If you’re at a restaurant and find yourself struggling to finish your meal, ask the waiter if they could help you package the leftover food. Take it home and eat it for snack or dinner. Or freeze it and reheat another day.
  • At Home:
    • Check out BBC’s Recipes for Leftovers for novel ways of using kitchen ingredients that might otherwise go to waste.
    • Move older food products to the front of your fridge/cupboard so you remember to use them while they’re still good.
    • Learn which foods can still be eaten after their so-called “expiration dates”.
    • Donate to a local Food Bank or Soup Kitchen. ‘Tis the season to be giving!

Author: Sheyna Cruz

Sheyna Cruz is a senior and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Eye. This is her second year on staff and her third at SAS. She loves Model UN, murder mysteries, mangoes, milk tea and other things that don’t necessarily start with M. She can be contacted at cruz45489@sas.edu.sg.