According to EIU, Indonesia has been touted as the second lowest performer in food waste reduction on a per capita basis after Saudi Arabia. (Antara Photo/Ampelsa)

Willful Food Waste, Woeful Want


SEPTEMBER 06, 2017

Existing food production, distribution and consumption practices have posed predicaments which contribute to a significant amount of food waste and loss. There are however conceivable solutions to address these issues at each step of the food chain: from the producers, distributors, to restaurants, retailers, consumers and government.

The proverbial expression of "willful waste, woeful want" implies that if we deliberately waste something, we would in turn desperately want it. Thus it relates to what we encounter nowadays, as analyzed from the recent publication of the Economist Intelligence Unit titled "Fixing Food: Towards a More Sustainable Food System of which a third of world's food is wasted, whilst over a third of the people around the world are starving.

According to EIU, Indonesia has been touted as the second lowest performer in food waste reduction on a per capita basis after Saudi Arabia. This is consistent with the research outcome that I have conducted on household waste in Jakarta, which concludes that among the total trash disposed at landfill sites, over 50 percent is composed of organic food waste as the largest fraction.

The issue of food waste becomes central, not only to counter the irony that starvation and surfeit coexists on the same planet, but also to address the issue that food waste is one of the primary sources of greenhouse gases emissions contributing to climate change. This is especially so when waste is disposed improperly with open dumping or unsanitary landfill methods. Methane gas generated from organic waste in general is 21 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, hence proper attention to food waste abatement should be taken.

Massive amounts of food waste occurs due to various reasons. In developing countries such as Indonesia, there are issues in the supply chain due to maintaining durability and freshness of food products before they enter the market or reach the customers.

In Indonesia there are inherent difficulties in food distribution because there are a number of remote villages that are served by substandard roads, disorganized transport systems and a lack of access to cold storage units. This leads to an untimely distribution of food products from producers to consumers, thus generating food loss.

For instance, seafood products that are not properly stored and refrigerated would not be safely edible for long and would need to be disposed of. Hence, cold storage is a necessity in the fishery industry. Similarly, fruit products such as bananas often quickly mature before they can reach consumers.

Issues are often encountered due to food loss that occurs before the food products reach end users. Therefore, the focus of the existing waste regulations at the end user side appears to be erroneous.

To curb the issue of food waste and food loss, the notion of waste hierarchy should be taken into account. Waste hierarchy lays down a five-step hierarchy system of waste management options which should be applied by order of priority. Waste prevention  as the preferred option  is followed by reuse, recycling, recovery including energy recovery and as a last option safe disposal.

As such, the primary focus should be to avoid food waste, with secondary efforts focused on how to best dispose of it. Thus, the measures taken by consumers would require prioritization over end-of-pipe methods  a treatment system that processes waste prior to discharging the waste into the environment.

However, the government currently appears to focus on end-of-pipe measures, namely through the enactment a 2012 government regulation on household waste. The regulation focuses on the source, requiring household waste separation into five different categories.

However in practice this regulation is not yet generally applied by citizens as there have not yet introduced any incentives or disincentives to ensure compliance.

There are a lot of end user solutions. Several local initiatives have flourished, such as collection of food waste from restaurants in Depok. It was estimated that the restaurants along the streets generate 1.2 tons of food waste per day, and there are attempts to convert this waste into animal feed and compost. Such initiatives can be scaled or replicated, possibly through government involvement.

For example in France, there are legal obligations for supermarkets to donate excess food to charities, and use of food waste as fuel. In Indonesia, there have been attempts and pilot projects in using cooking oil waste for running buses  as practiced for years in Kyoto, Japan.

Locally, the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) provides buses fueled by biodiesel for transportation of workers. There are also independent efforts, such as the Green School Bali's Bio Bus initiative which operates buses that run on biodiesel from used cooking oil. However these sorts of initiatives are scattered and not yet a widespread practice.

In order to tackle the issues, relevant stakeholders should contribute to the cause, including the government, food producers, distributors, private sector and consumers. The government is advised to further improve road conditions to enable better interconnectivity, source stable energy supplies for cold storage and improve access to cold storage units, which may require approaching the private sector.

End-of-pipe solutions and establishment of integrated solid waste management to treat organic waste through anaerobic digestion using co-generation methods to produce electricity, should be conducted at the municipality level.

To enable this, partnership with the private sector is encouraged. In parallel, awareness-raising campaigns and education on the importance of avoiding food waste should be introduced in early education.

Food producers are advised to have a better understanding on the causes of food waste throughout the entire food supply chain and also project consumer demands. Research and development for innovative food preservation techniques is also necessary, while supermarkets and restaurants should be open to donate food to charities.

As traditional farmers may not necessarily have sufficient knowledge on proper storage of food products that lead to early maturity of fruits and vegetables, this calls for the need to provide farmers with the know-how on proper storage of food products to avoid food loss.

Consumers should also be responsible to avoid food waste at-source to the extent possible by purchasing only what they need.

As Mahatma Gandhi famously said "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed." As such, food provisioning would also need to go beyond considerations of the economies of scale and ought to shift towards responsible food production and consumption.

Aretha Aprilia is a renewable energy specialist of CDM Smith, Jakarta, a doctorate alumnus of Kyoto University Japan and a former fellow of the Schlumberger Foundation.