Food waste in Singapore

According to the UN study quoted in the first entry on this blog, consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia throw away an average of 13 to 24 pounds of food a year – which, compared to the 210 to 250 pounds of food the average North American or European consumer throws away each year, is amazing.

As I was in Singapore in March, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do a little research into food waste there. The first thing I wanted to figure out was if Singapore, with the (by far) highest GDP per capita in Southeast Asia, was typical for the region when it comes to food waste. I wasn’t able to find any rigorous studies on household food waste per capita. What I did find was a two-week study of 150 families that found that the average household food waste per consumer was about 7 pounds a year. Given the methodology, my suspicion is that that estimate is a little low – but probably the right order of magnitude, so very much in line with the rest of Southeast Asia. And one thing is certain: with total food waste (commercial and household) coming in at 570 million kilograms per year (or 248 pounds per person), there’s no question that household food waste is significantly lower than in the US, Canada or Europe.

So how to people manage to waste so much less? I had a few conversations with locals and expats in Singapore to try to tease that out.

South Indian curry

One big reason has to do with transportation. Owning a car in Singapore is expensive. There is a registration fee of 1000 SGD – except the first time a car is registered, when that fee is 150% of the car’s value. There is an import duty of 41% on cars. There are road taxes, and extra fees if you drive your car on busy roads during rush hour (tallied automatically, thanks to transponders installed in all cars). And those are just the big ticket items. The good news is that there is a great, reasonably priced, countrywide metro and bus system, and most people (for obvious reasons) use that for daily travel. So what does that have to do with food waste? Well, a lot. For one thing, it means that food markets have sprouted pretty much in walking distance of everywhere. People tend to go to local stores, and the fact that they have to lug whatever they buy home in 90 degree humid weather encourages them to buy only what they need for the next day or two – something that naturally leads to better planning and less waste.

Typical hawker center

Another factor keeping household waste low is hawker centers. These open air eateries are everywhere, and house multiple food stalls featuring good, cheap fare. You can eat well for less than 5 Singapore dollars (less than the cost of cooking at home) – and most people I asked said that they ate dinner out at least three times a week. That certainly reduces food waste in homes – but what about restaurant waste? I suspect that is small relative to restaurants in the US. The hawker portions are smaller than those in US restaurants, and so a lot less gets left on plates – and each hawker stall makes a limited number of dishes with a limited number of ingredients, and keeps only a small amount of inventory on hand, which reduces waste due to spoilage.

Nothing earth shattering here, but it does suggest a couple of good practices that anyone can implement to reduce food waste, no matter where they live:

  1. Only buy what you need – plan!
  2. Finish what you buy – avoid leftovers or eat them.

Those things are easier said than done in an environment that makes it easy to waste (the US, for example, has 5 times more cars per capita than Singapore, cheap groceries and huge restaurant portions) – but they can make a huge difference (less than 25 pounds of wasted food vs. more than 200 pounds of wasted food).


16 thoughts on “Food waste in Singapore

  1. I posted on my blog, The Sustain Blog, at about the Boxcar Grocer. It is a local neighborhood store that makes it easy for people to do just what you are talking about; walk to a store where they can get healthy food and not have to buy a ton of it.

    • I need one of those in my neighborhood. :)

      Though we do have a few good shops and a weekly farmers market within biking distance – so I can’t complain.

  2. Pingback: Food recycling with pigs? Small scale sustainable living concept. « Shady Hill Homestead

  3. Interesting analysis. It also seems that the push in the US towards convenience, accessibility and low cost has changed the relationship (and/or the expectation) between consumers and grocery stores. In Japan, everyone is aware of the season and how that effects food availability – in fact there is a strong belief that it is healthy and important to eat seasonably. This has the effect of limiting waste.

    As well, there is a cultural belief that it is disrespectful to the farmer to waste any food. Kids are told that a farmer worked hard to grow the rice they are eating, so they should eat it all up. I don’t recall hearing that kind of language in the states. This connection to the farmer is also encouraged by sometimes placing photos of the farmer and/or the farmer’s family next to the produce s/he has grown.

    I think this cultural connection to seasons and to the farmers has a profound effect on the differences in waste between “East” and “West”. I think the more a similar connection can be fostered in the US, the less waste will be produced. Events like farmer’s markets and the emphasis on local-grown produce do this – and as these concepts are adopted across the country, waste will drop accordingly. But the challenge could be in extending these concepts from beyond the already food conscious consumers into the main stream.

  4. Hi Jean-Francois! This is a really interesting article, and I can relate your experience in Singapore with mine in China, where everyhting is used, not much is wasted at all it seems people buy little and often. So simple, yet so difficult to imagine something like this happening on a large scale in “western” countries. We might be in the middle of a recession’s recession but I’m shocked when I see that there still is SO much waste everyhwere…

    • There’s definitely something broken in our relationship with food … though things were very different not so long ago – during World War II and the Depression, for example. Maybe the silver lining on this recession is that it will make people value food again, though unfortunately it seems to be a lesson that is easily forgotten in times of abundance.

      • That’s true, when the recession first started I remember seeing so many articles about a “return to the age of austerity” with tips on how make things last longer etc, but somehow I haven’t really noticed any major changes in how, for example, restaurants or supermarkets could discourage food waste. There are still so many “BOGOF” (buy one get one free) offers everywhere, and when it comes to fresh food unfortunately it still often translates into shocking amounts of food going to waste.

      • Good point about hard times. Going to the trouble of growing and preparing your own food also makes you waste less, and in a society where people just buy prepared food all the time, the appreciation of the process is lost. We were brought up using everything up and clearing our plates, but I recall that even friends from homes that could not afford much were raised NOT to clear their plates and finish everything. It seems waste is a cultural sign of “being somebody”, even if you actually don’t have all that much. So odd.

      • Agree 100% that growing and preparing your food helps. When you’ve invested something in the product, it’s a lot harder to throw it away.

  5. And thanks for following my blog. I love that you are really promoting your concept; it is a very worthy and important issue in current world conditions. I hope you can change the way North Americans waste.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s