Tackling Thailand's food-waste crisis

Tackling Thailand's food-waste crisis

Shoppers select fresh produce at a supermarket. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
Shoppers select fresh produce at a supermarket. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

When one-third of all food produced globally is thrown away while nearly one billion people go hungry, food waste is not only a moral travesty, it's also a crime against nature.

Each year 1,300 tonnes of food waste in landfills around the world contributes 8% of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and the climate crisis.

Food waste on this scale is unacceptable. And so is failure to act to stop it.

Each year in the United States, supermarkets throw away more than 60 tonnes of food that is still safe and edible. The same thing is happening all around the world, and Thailand is no exception.

Reducing food waste is one of the United Nations' sustainable development goals; the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a targeted a 50% reduction by the year 2030.

Its first goal is to measure exactly how much food we waste and lose, since most countries -- Thailand included -- have no figures for this.

According to the Pollution Control Department, organic waste collected by municipalities across the country in 2017 accounted for 64%, or about 17.56 tonnes, of the country's garbage. This figure did not include trash from the private sector that was managed by private waste-management contractors.

Though it lacks an efficient waste sorting and recycling system, Thailand can look abroad to learn alternative ways to manage food loss and waste.

Many countries reduce waste by selecting the safe past-date food in supermarkets and surplus food from hotels, and donating it instead of throwing it away.

In 2016, France issued a law ordering retail stores of more than 400 square metres to donate edible surplus food for distribution to people in need. Refusing to do so brings a fine of 3,750 euros or about 133,293 baht. Those who comply receive a 60% tax cut on the value of the food donated. In short, France is using both the carrot and the stick to reduce food waste.

In contrast, the United States mainly uses the carrot. A tax deduction is the lure used to encourage US donors to hand over excess food, along with legal protection from criminal and civil liability if the donated food causes illnesses.

In Arizona, restaurants and farmers receive tax privileges if they donate surplus food. California gives the donor farmers a 10% tax credit. Missouri, meanwhile, hands taxpayers a 50% annual tax credit of up to US$2,500 on the amount of food donated to food charities in their vicinity.

Cutting wastage of fresh food with a short shelf life is especially difficult. But mobile apps that match donors and recipients are stepping up to the challenge. Notable examples include the Food Cloud application used in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the Too Good to Go application in Europe and the United States. The apps also allow buyers to pay for the surplus food.

South Korea, meanwhile, is successfully reducing household food waste through its mandatory pay-as-you-recycle system. Each household is required to buy disposable garbage bags, which encourages recycling -- especially by making compost or biofuel. Because the bags are pricey, people feel the need to reduce their household waste.

South Korea also plans to develop smart bins with built-in weighing and recycling machines. Consumers will then pay for the recycling service according to the weight of their waste. With commitment and innovation, South Korea is now able to recycle 90% of its food waste.

Thailand is lagging far behind.

While 64% of our total garbage is food waste, only a tiny amount is recycled. The main culprit is the lack of a waste sorting system. As a result, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration is able to recycle only 2% of the food waste collected. The rest goes to landfills, where hygiene is not a priority.

Here, the hotel and retail industries are spearheading food waste reduction by donating past-date or excess food instead of discarding it. Tesco Lotus, Ikea and the Marriott Hotel, for example, are following the food waste management policies of their parent companies overseas.

However, while donating surplus food is noble, it only makes a small dent in the mountain of excess or wasted food. Fortunately, we have a home-grown food waste consulting company that has taken up the challenge. LightBlue Environmental Consulting has joined with the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) to launch a scheme that offers participating hotels partial reimbursement of the consultancy costs if the food waste reduction programme implemented reduces waste by at least a 10 per cent. The results of the programme are audited by a third party. The first hotel to join the programme was the Sampran Riverside. Others followed, including the JW Marriott Bangkok, the Holiday Inn Silom, the Ambassador and the Peninsula Bangkok. All achieved the threshold reduction and more. It turns out that the programme actually helped save costs.

Supermarkets often have their own food waste management scheme, as food is their core business. These business operators have internal systems to reduce food loss and waste, starting from careful procurement planning, sourcing directly from farmers to reduce waste from substandard produce, and packaging produce at farms to minimise spoiled goods, to donating surplus food to non-profit organisations for distribution to charities or farms for recycling as food or to make compost or organic fertiliser.

But problems abound.

The main obstacle is the monopoly held by waste collection companies. Interestingly, municipalities tend to give concessions to the one company which does not have a waste sorting system, aggravating both the business monopoly and the waste problems.

The lack of legal protections for food donors and food distributors is another hurdle. At present, SOS is the only food waste distributing organisation in the country that meets proper hygiene standards. Yet it risks being targeted by lawsuits should the donated food cause illnesses.

Apart from the lack of waste-sorting systems, Thailand does not have the data needed to form sound policy on food waste management -- be it the amount of food waste, the technology available, or how cutting food surplus helps operators cut investment costs.

Thailand urgently needs a food waste database. Initial efforts should start with the hotel industry, which has already made progress. These will provide a basis to develop a national food-waste database on which policy can be formulated.

Also useful would be websites that provide lists of people, organisations, businesses and communities involved in the food waste management network, including consultancy agencies and companies that sell products for making fertiliser, animal feed, and biofuel from food waste.

Meanwhile, food waste coordinators and distributors such as SOS should receive protection from legal action should the donated items cause health problems.

The government also needs to set rules and regulations on hygiene standards, such as on temperature during transportation of foodstuffs. Particularly necessary is a law that offers tax incentives to promote donation of excess food.

Equally important, if not more, is a strong waste-sorting system and state support for the recycling of food waste. Collecting food waste on alternate days or at a particular time of day has proved effective in other countries.

Waste collection fees should be adjusted to reflect real costs by charging according to the quantity and weight of each household's trash. The charges should be the same in all areas. If not, local politicians will avoid raising the fees to please their constituents. Also, each community should have its own food waste recycling centre, to help families and small businesses make organic and biological fertiliser.

Short of policies for systematic change, every one of us can still help reduce food waste simply by obeying our mothers' words during mealtimes when we were children. "Finish your food" is still timely advice when it comes to saving Mother Earth.

Thanthip Srisuwannaket and Caratlux Liumpetch are researchers at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.


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