The deadline to end hunger, food insecurity and every form of malnutrition in the world is in 2030. With 9 years away from the deadline, the targeted goal was still achievable until the pandemic hit. The Food and Agriculture Organisation by the United Nations (FAO) estimated that around 660 million people may still face hunger in 2030 as a result of the lasting impacts of the pandemic on global food security.
The race to end hunger relies on the ability of nations to be adequately self-sustaining and for nutritious food to be accessible and affordable for all. The underlying issue aside from production and distribution of food is the management and reduction of food waste.
In 2019, the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) recorded that Malaysians waste about 16,688 tonnes of food per day, an amount that can easily feed around 2.2 million people, three times a day. At the same time, our major source of methane emission is from the landfills recording 55.6% of methane generation.
Why does the amount of methane release matter? The easiest way to combat climate change is by reducing methane emission, which is 20 times more lethal than carbon emission. The best way to do so is by reducing the food waste that is rotting in landfills, as it contributed to 45% of Malaysia’s methane emission in 2016 .
Is Malaysia Up To Speed With Food Waste Management?
The plans to reduce wastage have been in place since 2007. SWCorp was founded to establish a more comprehensive and integrated way of waste management. Yet, when it comes to solid waste management which includes our daily waste, the predominant step that we are relying on is disposal. There is a need to reexamine our approach as our landfills are being filled to the brim and we are running out of disposal space. On the bright side, we have exceeded the 22% set target by The National Solid Waste Management Policy 2016 in 2020 by recording a 30% recycling rate nationally.
The numbers may look promising since the policy enactment, however, we are still behind when compared to South Korea and Singapore recording a recycling rate of 53.7% and 34% respectively. Further, the lack of breakdown of the types of solid waste which were recycled in Malaysia raises questions as emphasis has often been given to paper, plastic and glass. To add to the mix, the amount of our food waste has not been tackled as effectively as the recorded 4.080 tonnes discarded in 2020 .
The nation will become one big dumpsite if we continue with business as usual, ignoring the urgency and importance of sound waste management. – Ho De Leong, Waste Management Association chairman
Taking a leaf out of South Korea’s success story
Their effort started in 1995 by tearing apart their existing taxation for waste disposal. Recycled materials were taken free of charge while all other trash, a fee was imposed. Fast forward to 2006, it was illegal to dispose of food waste in landfills and in 2013, each household needed to adhere to food waste recycling using biodegradable bags.
The strict policy managed to reduce food waste and it was estimated that billions of dollars were saved. Citizens of South Korea had to think of alternative methods of disposing of their food waste – among them are composting, animal feed and turning it into biofuels.
At the same time, the inclusion of technology has accelerated their food recycling program. The country’s capital, Seoul, is scattered with 6,000 bins with weighing scales and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) installed to weigh disposed of food waste. Through this system, any food waste deposited by residents will be charged using an ID card. This initiative managed to reduce 47,000 tonnes of food waste in six years.
The number of urban farms or community gardens increased by sixfold within seven years. The involvement of an intermediary between the people and the government was pivotal to advance the program further, the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network has been the voice of the society and advocating for better waste management while educating the apprehensive citizens at the initial stages.
But they are not stopping, South Korea aims to have zero food waste in the future by tackling the root cause of the problem which is the abundance of banchan (side dishes) at mealtime which is the major contributor to food waste in restaurants.
There’s a limit to how much food waste fertiliser can actually be used. This means there has to be a change in our dining habits, such as shifting to a one-plate culinary culture like other countries, or at least reducing the amount of banchan that we lay out. – Kim Mi-hwa, chair of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network
The tale of two countries
What differentiates Malaysia from South Korea’s success is the stringent policy in place to reduce their food waste, thus far, our waste management has been charged with a small amount of fee which has remained unchanged over the years as low as RM10 for dumpsites and RM40 per tonne at sanitary landfills. When it comes to food waste, no policy has been sanctioned so far.
Our recycling initiative, the 3Rs, (reduce, reuse and recycle) campaign was the nearest to an awareness campaign that is set in stone. A simple awareness initiative is no longer sufficient, as action needs to be in motion.
There is one notable action plan which was taken by the Subang Jaya Municipal Council (MPSJ) and Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) in 2015. Both offices have embarked on food waste recycling programmes targeted at food hawkers. Their initiatives to convert food waste to renewable biofuel have faced many setbacks, one was the non-compliance of the hawkers themselves. Not backing down, the councils placed numbered waste bins to trace where the trash is coming from. Further, they cast a bigger net by placing the waste bins in schools to educate the younger generation on food waste separation. At the same time, the municipality runs a compost farm that gathers food waste, churns it into compost and generates profit from it.
It would be ideal if the councils had the backing of law enforcers to assist with awareness efforts. – Mohd Hafiz Sharif, MPSJ Solid Waste and Public Cleaning Department senior assistant director 
Currently, initiatives to reduce food waste management are often centred in developed states such as Selangor. Social enterprises and non-profit organisations have been the pillar in creating traction. Social enterprises such as The Lost Food Project redistribute edible food to underserved communities. Meanwhile, MAEKO is actively involved in composting organic waste and Urban Hijau which practices permaculture to open the public’s eye to the benefits of sustainable farming. The involvement of a government-backed organisation, Yayasan Food Bank Malaysia under the Ministry of Domestic Trade And Consumers Affairs in 2019 indicates the rising awareness of the dire situation the nation is in when it comes to food waste.
It may not be too long before we have better sanctions in place. In 2020, Minister Of Housing And Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin declared the nation’s commitment to innovate and shift solid waste management from its current state to closing the loop it creates. Through a discussion with the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation, the government is on the path to handle our food waste management better .
It is time for more proactive actions structurally, as the intervention in the authority level would create desirable changes in the societal level as we have seen in South Korea, or emulate the initiatives run in MPSJ and MBPJ. Better enforcement of the laws and legislation, policies on domestic waste management undeniably would only incite behaviour modification in our society.
Change starts with the consumer
Despite the lack of enforcement or policy in place on the structural level currently, the fight to reduce food waste is closer to home than one may think. The public is still batting their eyes shut with the panic buying scenarios we have witnessed at the start of every cycle of nationwide lockdown since March 2020 . The irresponsible behaviour of some who cleared the products off the shelves despite the assurance of the government only results in more food waste if perishable items are not consumed in time.
Buying more than what we need only shifts the waste from the store to our home. Dr Zaleha Md Isa, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Professor of Public Health Nutrition 
However, the aforementioned mentality did not only arise during crises. It had been embedded long before as some are guilty of the “tak apa attitude” exacerbated by the Bata culture in which we lack the consideration in our waste management starting from how we purchase our produce . The ‘Bata’ culture coined by the Waste Management Association  shed light on the apparent culture of the population that buy and throw away as we grow richer and more developed. This culture underlies the increase in Malaysia’s waste generation within the past 15 years.
We throw trash out without giving it much thought, so long as it gets collected by the garbage collectors.Ho De Leong, Waste Management Association chairman 
On the roadsides of Malaysia, the scenery of hawkers and street stalls is one that we are familiar with. Food is readily available to us, and during our pre-COVID days, the Mamak and fast food chains are often open 24 hours. The easy access to food leads to our tapau culture, which not only increases the possibility of food waste but adds to the environmental headache of mounting plastics.
There has been an increased awareness and action over the years in the reduction of food waste and the redistribution of surplus food to needy communities by great changemakers – but we (individual households) are also accountable for how we handle our purchases and how we discard them. Our food waste is a missed opportunity to ensure our less fortunate friends fill their empty stomachs and to do our part in slowing down climate change. As an evolved society, it is time for us to “ambil berat”, think twice before placing products in our trolley and consume more responsibly.
Explore our sources:
- FAO.(2021). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. The world is at a critical juncture. Link
- A.H. Zaki. (2019). Waste not, want not – it’s time to get serious about food waste. New Straits Times. Link
- A. Johari, A., S. Ahmed, H. Hashim, H. Alkali and Ramli, M. (2012). Economic and environmental benefits of landfill gas from municipal solid waste in Malaysia. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev.16, 2907–2912. Link.
- J. Yong Zi, Mohammed J.K. Bashir, Choon A. Ng, S.Sethupathi, Jun W. Lim, and Pau L. Show (2019). Sustainable Waste-to-Energy Development in Malaysia: Appraisal of Environmental, Financial, and Public Issues Related with Energy Recovery from Municipal Solid Waste. Processes 7, no. 10: 676. Link
- International Energy Agency (2021). Methane Tracker 2021, Link
- Global Recycling. Malaysia: Toward A Sustainable Waste Management. Link
- Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA). Sustainable Waste Management in Malaysia: Opportunities and Challenges. Link
- Bernama.(2020). SWCorp aims for 40% recycling rate by 2025. Link
- F.Zainal. (2021). Daily food waste staggering. The Star. Link
- S.Leoi. (2019). Malaysia is overflowing with waste and we’re running out of options. Link
- D. Broom. (2019). South Korea once recycled 2% of its food waste. Now it recycles 95%. World Economic Forum. Link.
- Earth.org. (2021). How South Korea Became an Example of How to Recycle Food Waste. Link
- R.Galchen.(2020). How South Korea is Composting its Way to Sustainability. The New Yorker.Link
- G.Chen. (2017). Councils determined to recycle food waste. Link
- New Straits Times. (2020). Putting a lid on food wastage. Link
- The Edge Markets. (2020). Changing Marketing Landscapes: The Rapid Reaction of Grocers. Link
- A.Tang. (2021). ‘Only buy what you need to curb wastage.’ The Star. Link
- WWF Malaysia. (2020). Study on EPR scheme Assessment for Packaging Waste in Malaysia. Link