Plan­ners look to big data and other so­lu­tions to re­duce the enor­mous amount of food be­ing thrown away

China Daily European Weekly - - Life - By AL­FRED ROMANN For China Daily

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.

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 goodqual­ity, 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.”


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.

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