Can circular economy practices solve Singapore’s food waste challenge?

29 November 2016

The Republic of Singapore is an exciting place to visit and to see the progress the country has made over the last 50 years since its independence in 1965. Developmental challenges relating to health, education, poverty, economic growth or innovation are no major concern of Singaporeans – for example, under-5 child mortality dropped from 48 (per 1,000 live births) in 1960 to 3 in 2015, per capita GDP stood at $85,208 in 2015, and its education system has topped the OECD’s global education ranking. However, when it comes to environmental aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals, the ‘Garden City’ has a number of challenges that need to be addressed urgently over the next 15 years to achieve the targets outlined under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I recently was invited to an international conference ‘Attaining the Sustainable Development Goals – Environmental Law, Policy and Management’ which was organised and hosted by the National University of Singapore (NuS). The conference focused on the SDGs ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ (SDG 12), ‘Climate Action’ (SDG 13), ‘Life under Water’ (SDG 14) and ‘Life on Land’ (SDG 15) – all of which are becoming priority areas for Singapore. I presented on the experiences of the EU-funded SWITCH-Asia Programme and the findings of a recent circular economy report published by Tearfund and IDS. I highlighted the opportunities offered by life cycle-based approaches of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and circular economy practices to address the SDGs.

The cross-cutting approaches of SCP and circular economy practices such as reduce-reuse-recycling, repair, remanufacture and ‘closing the loop’ offer solutions to address some of the most pressing environmental issues of concern for the Asia-Pacific region – ambitious plastic recycling will reduce plastic pollution to the oceans; repair and recycling of electronics will reduce need for primary resource mining; changes in consumer behaviour to prevent food waste will reduce pressure on forests otherwise converted to agricultural production (and additional food will be available for human consumption); sophisticated waste separation and recycling of municipal waste will reduce the need for landfill and incineration, thereby cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Food-energy-waste-water nexus in Singapore

As a small country with limited space and small agricultural output, Singapore depends heavily on imported food supplies. As there is not much space available, only about 1 per cent of Singapore’s land area is used for food production. Singapore imports about 90 per cent of all its food. Despite the unfavourable situation, the country has managed to diversify its food supply and is considered very resilient in terms of food security. In terms of sustainability of the food system, the story looks quite different.

One of the sustainability issues that Singapore is set to tackle is food waste. SDG target 12.3 on food waste aims ‘By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses’. Food waste accounts for 10 per cent of total waste generated in Singapore. Food waste increased by almost 50 per cent in the last decade. In 2014, 788,600 tonnes of food waste was generated – about 140 kg per person. Of this 101,400 tonnes were recycled, only about 13 per cent. Food waste also contaminates other types of waste which then cannot be recycled. According to Singapore’s National Environment Agency, the contamination across all four public waste collection campanies - SembWaste, Veolia, Colex and 800 Super - is between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

Food waste was partly disposed of in landfill, but Singapore's only landfill on Pulau Semakau is expected to run out of space by 2035. A large share of food waste, and other waste contaminated by food waste, is incinerated in waste-to-energy plants. Incinerating food waste is the least preferable treatment option, due to high moisture content it basically means burning water, which requires additional fuels, and destroys valuable nutrients which could instead be used for productive purposes such as organic fertiliser. Reducing food waste would also have substantial climate benefits for Singapore, 15 per cent less food waste in Singapore would cut CO2 emission comparable to taking 82,000 cars off the road.

Singapore government responses

The Singapore government has set out national waste management strategies to work towards Singapore becoming a Zero Waste Nation under the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015. The conference was attended by the Hon. Mr. Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. He announced that several pilot projects have been initiated to develop solutions based on circular thinking. Several premises across Singapore, including hotels, shopping malls, food centres and schools, have begun segregating their food waste and are using on-site food waste treatment systems to convert the food waste into compost for landscaping purposes or water for non-potable use. The pilots will test the economic viability and operational feasibility of on-site food waste treatment systems. Another example is a demonstration facility designed to treat up to 40 tonnes of combined food waste and used water sludge to produce biogas from the anaerobic digestion process, thereby enhancing energy recovery. This demonstration facility located at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant is expected to start taking in food waste by end 2016.

Multiple uses for food waste already exist, and innovative circular thinking can help to find new solutions. At the Center for Sustainable Asian Cities and the School for Design and Environment at NuS, researchers are experimenting with food waste to be transformed into biochar, a porous product similar to charcoal which can be used as a substitute for conventional construction materials in buildings. The best thing is that biochar also absorbs CO2 thereby turning buildings into carbon sinks. Every tonne of biochar used in a building’s envelope absorbs about one tonne of CO2.

How can development studies contribute?

Food waste is a cross-cutting issue and a new challenge and topic for development studies. Whilst technical solutions based on circular economy principles can be used to turn food waste into a resource, to achieve the SDG target of halving per capita food waste requires multiple strategies, including awareness raising and changes in the way urban consumers consume food. Traditionally, development professionals and researchers have focused on issues of rural reforms and enhancing agricultural food production practices on the one hand, or malnutrition and health issues on the other. Nowadays more than half of the global population lives in cities, many people are disconnected from the food production process and have low awareness about the food waste issue. They are food consumers, in many cases over-consumers – obesity and related diseases are nowadays as much an issue as undernutrition – coined the ‘double burden of malnutrition’ by the World Health Organisation. The SDG Target 2.2 ‘By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition’ which also would include overconsumption of food and diet-related diseases, indirectly relates to food waste.

Development studies has decades of experience in applying participatory practices, getting people involved to engage in society and in the decisions that impact their lives. These practices and experiences could have much to offer to engage not only marginalised communities, but could also be used to work with citizens in highly developed urban settings such as Singapore. This approach of linking circular economy practices and participation methods could be the key to achieving a number of SDG targets, and to addressing new frontiers and challenges of development studies in the 21st century.

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