Food Waste Endangers Us All : What Can We Do About It?

By Dr Jane Gew, Chemistry Lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences, Sunway University

Malaysia has a huge food waste challenge. It is a perpetual problem. Landfill operator, SWCorp Malaysia has reported that as much as up to 17,000 tonnes of food waste are recorded on a daily basis. Of 17000 tonnes of food waste, 4080 tonnes (24%) are avoidable waste, and 76% are unavoidable waste. Interestingly, only 2% of the respondents carry out composting in one of the recent food waste study conducted by SWCorp.

These tremendous amount of food waste endangers us all, as it accelerates climate change.

Climate change is the result of increased temperatures in the earth’s oceans and atmosphere which has dire consequences to life on earth. Climate change causes rising sea levels which endangers coastal populations, results in extreme weather, threatens agricultural production leading to food scarcity, and puts human health at risk.

For businesses, a climate crisis can cause physical damage to property, people, and even our transportation networks which could amount to billions in damages. Hospitality industries could lose income from floods and wildfires. Companies that cause environmental harm also put themselves a risk for legal suits.

Organic waste in landfills generates harmful greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

Reducing food waste and preventing it from being sent it to landfills would cut greenhouse gas emissions, and save us all from the dire effects of climate change.

Starting with Waste Segregation

The process of managing waste begins before the waste reaches the dustbin. We always believe when we throw something out from our house or our sight, that is the end; but it is not the case!

To better manage waste in our business premises or in our households, we can segregate our waste into categories such as organic waste (such as food waste), and solid waste (such as plastic, paper, glass). Sorted out the waste will increase the recycling rate. For example, recyclable waste (such as paper, cardboard, glass bottles, plastic) can be reused or recycled, meanwhile food waste can be turned into compost.

The good practice of waste segregation will reduce the amount of organic waste and solid waste, in particular materials such as paper, glass and aluminium cans, from being sent to landfills. These can be recycled instead.

Composting Helps

All food discards contain carbon. When they decompose naturally, under aerobic conditions (with ample air), the CO2 they emit is part of the natural short-term carbon cycle. In the natural short-term carbon cycle, carbon is removed from the atmosphere by natural processes such as plant photosynthesis.

On the other hand, food scraps in landfills compose in an anaerobic environment (in wet and limited-air conditions). This releases methane and nitrogen. Nitrogen is 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide in heating up the atmosphere.

Compared to the type of carbon dioxide released in landfills, the carbon dioxide released during composting is considered biogenic (produced or brought on by living organisms and therefore not anthropogenic or created by humans).

Good composting practices will balance the ratio of carbon dioxide to nitrogen (C/N) in the compost bin. The C/N ratio for composting is ideally to be around 30:1. Excessive nitrogen may produce undesirable odours. Excessive carbon may slow down the rate of decomposition as insufficient of nitrogen will not promote optimal growth of the microbial populations. Furthermore, the use of compost in gardening or farming will minimise the need for chemical fertilizers.

Unfortunately, awareness on waste segregation and composting practices is still rather low in Malaysia. If Malaysians can come together and practice waste segregation and composting, we could help mitigate climate change.

Sustainable Development Goal 12

To better address SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, we initiated a waste project with funding from the Sunway Materials Smart Science and Engineering (SMS2E) Cluster.

The aim was to reduce food waste in our own in the University. With this research project, we repurposed the unavoidable food waste by converting it into value-added products, one of the solutions is through composting.

This multidisciplinary project was put together by the efforts of professionals from various disciplines at Sunway University, which comprise of experts from different backgrounds such as chefs, psychologists, scientists, engineers, social scientists and economists.

One of the outcomes of this project is the food compost. We promoted the idea of turning food waste in compost though students’ community service project. Students of School of Medical and Life Sciences, Sunway University organized a charity food compost sale and raised of a total of RM2,094. The collection was donated to #BenderaPutih Fund through GivingHub and NGO such as The Lost Food Project.

The sustainable living attitude is still a new concept in Malaysian context. To cultivate such attitude into both daily and professional practice, the new generation needs to be educated adequately. Awareness can be created through hands-on learning with a purpose through community service module.

Stopping climate change is not the work of a single individual. It requires our combined effort.  

Dr Jane Gew is a Chemistry lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences in Sunway University

She is actively involved in research activities that are in-line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by using and developing new green and safe alternative processes and chemicals. She is also passionate and committed to understand and address plastic pollution issues to achieve a sustainable world through change in policy and social structure.

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