Our taste for waste
Given the extent of the wastage, Malaysia should take another look at how its people consume food. However any attempt to alter food consumption patterns is a challenging feat due to the compulsive affinity of Malaysians for food, particularly during the various festivals that take place throughout the year. At the centre of these festivities is the ‘open house’, which, as the name suggests, involves opening one’s doors to family, friends and even strangers to enjoy what is usually a buffet meal (read: ‘feast’). Unfortunately, Malaysians have a tendency to go overboard whenever hosting or attending these functions.
Such seasonal binge-eating adds to food waste in several ways. Stiff competition within the industry sees many food caterers and hotels go out of their way to prepare lavish menus that can include up to 100 dishes. And in order to attract attention, these food outlets usually put large quantities of food on display. The problem is further exacerbated by open house hosts requesting excessive amounts of food in anticipation of large numbers of visitors. All of this culminates in sizeable leftovers that are simply thrown out at the end of the day.
Sadly, the situation is not too different when Malaysians dine out. More food is often ordered than can actually be consumed. Large quantities of food are indulged in as a way of showing off, indicating that the host can afford an extravagant lifestyle. The food industry knows this and in order to convince customers that their order represents good value for money, they serve large or ‘family-size’ portions, when smaller portions could have been adequate. Unfortunately much of the food in such situations ends up as waste. Similarly in an ‘all-you-can-eat’ environment such as buffet-style dining, customers are allowed to refill their plates indefinitely, which frequently results in people loading their plates with more food than they can actually eat.
Keeping food waste in check
Initiatives to curb global waste generation include government policies; economic incentives for those who implement waste reduction programmes; collaborative efforts and public education (see Figure 1). However when it comes to reduction of food waste, the primary solution involves education and collaborative efforts. Consumers as well as businesses need to learn that less is more. Creating public awareness about food waste management should be prioritised in order to gain public support for the various initiatives focused on minimising food waste.
Figure 1: Types of initiatives and level of implementation in managing municipal solid waste in five Asian countries
Source: Municipal Waste Management Report (UNEP), OECD.
Even though organic waste has long been the major contributor to the country’s solid waste figures, no clear initiatives have been taken by the government to tackle the issue. While the government has had plans in place as early as 2002 to improve the management of solid waste in the country following the introduction of the National Solid Waste Management (2002-2020), the National Recycling Program (2000-2005), and the Waste Minimization Master Plan (2005) programmes, none of the initiatives emphasised the management of food waste. Further, most of the programmes focused on food waste management did not receive positive participation from the public.
In 2010, the government’s most comprehensive initiative took place between the Malaysian Housing and Local Government Ministry and the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. The National Strategic Plan for Food Waste Management in Malaysia (NSPFWMM) consists of six main strategies designed to introduce good food waste management practices to the general public as well as encourage them to be more active in their recycling efforts. However awareness of the issue continues to remain low, even today, due to the lack of funding and support. This saw the government making it mandatory in 2015 for solid waste generated by households to be separated at the source. Even though it was reported that the awareness and responsibility of sorting the waste had improved, it did not really encourage a reduction in food waste. In fact, wasteful behaviour continues to thrive: people tend to believe that they have done their part for the environment by sorting their household waste.
Education is another approach that has been used to combat food waste. The Malaysian government, through Mardi and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, introduced the MYsavefood programme in 2015. The programme seeks to promote the need to reduce food waste to all stakeholders. In order to improve its effectiveness, the programme plans to launch several promotions and seminars aimed at stakeholders. Key activities include forums held at universities, fairs and expos, as well as joint cooperative arrangements with government agencies. Active social media campaigns using Facebook and Twitter are used to create awareness about food waste. The MYsavefood initiative is also encouraging hypermarkets to donate food nearing its expiry dates to NGOs and charity organisations rather than sending them to landfills. However awareness about donating un-saleable food items is still relatively scant in Malaysia and the stigma around such food items is still strong among Malaysians. Consequently, donations of food close to its expiry date have not materialised as anticipated. The number of MYsavefood food waste reduction activities targeting the general public is also low and not widespread. To improve its effectiveness, MYsavefood needs to increase the number of food waste reduction programmes that target the general public, and to that end, it is actively looking for more partners to join its networks.
In line with MYsavefood’s idea of creating partners to aid in the effective reduction of food waste, the food industry can also assist through initiatives aimed at influencing the consumption habits of consumers. Food outlets such as hotels, cafes and caterers need to plan properly and regularly monitor their menu offerings. It is important for them to understand consumer preferences in order to develop menus and offer reasonably-sized portions. Smaller plates could be provided, for example, to allow consumers to monitor their food intake and encourage frequent refills rather than taking large quantities in one go.
Additionally, hotels and caterers can pre-portion the buffet dishes by serving the dishes in smaller containers as well as avoiding full refills towards the end of buffet sessions. Caterers can also serve the food onto the plates of guests rather than allowing them to serve themselves. This would help to monitor food servings and indirectly help reduce the tendency of consumers to overindulge. Another way of encouraging consumers to manage their food intake is to educate them by using signs that convey the benefits of smaller portions as well as managing refills rather than wasting the uneaten food.
Thus it is imperative for food outlets to educate themselves on the proper way to manage food servings. They need to have their own food management policy that emphasises the minimisation of food waste, as well as provide training to staff in order to develop a culture of ‘food waste-minimisation’. Staff should be encouraged to provide ideas that can creatively utilise trimmings and uneaten food for appealing sustainable menus. Swift action plans need to be put in place in the event of booking cancellations to avoid already-prepared food being thrown out.
Although the situation is becoming critical, a recent study conducted by researchers from the National University of Malaysia showed that 42 percent of households studied in the central region of Selangor, and 63 percent households in the eastern state of Terengganu, claim that they distribute their edible leftovers to their neighbours. This indicates that a culture of avoiding food waste still exists among many people. It is something the government needs to further encourage and promote.
Reduction of food waste is a responsibility incumbent upon all members of society. Our habitual lavish indulgence in food is affecting our own ability to feed ourselves in the future.
Rosly Othman is a senior lecturer in Operations Management at the Graduate School of Business, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
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