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Three Singapore Start-Ups Tackling the Ugly Side of Food Waste

By Terence Poh

Entering an era of unprecedented environmental crises, Singaporeans can still do better in terms of food waste management.
 
Charles Deluvio
Entering an era of unprecedented environmental crises, Singaporeans can still do better in terms of food waste management.

When I first heard talks about climate change, in the early 2000s, media outlets at the time spoke of the topic as a distant threat that was likely to warm the planet, kill wildlife and affect our lives if we didn’t scale back on consumption. To combat this threat, we were gently advised to develop good habits, like turning off electrical appliances not in use, recycling soda cans and reducing the use of plastic bags.

In just about a decade, the situation has escalated into an alarming global crisis. Current issues that plague the environment are far too numerous to list.

In Singapore, the National Environment Agency (NEA) spotlights food wastage as one of the five largest sources of waste. This sparked a year-long battle against food waste in 2019, as part of the Year Towards Zero Waste campaign initiated by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, to encourage Singaporeans to adopt habits that reduce immediate food wastage. These included ordering only what can be finished, asking for less rice or noodles if you know the amount is too much and refusing side dishes that won’t be consumed.

 

 

Yet, as of 2019, according to the Waste Statistics and Overall Recycling rates published by the NEA, only 18 per cent of total food waste was recycled, a one per cent increase from the previous year. The rest is incinerated at waste-to-energy plants. Granted, it’s a better option as compared to depositions at landfills — these generate methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 per cent more potent than carbon dioxide, when organic materials like food waste break down. But, as studies have shown, large-scale incinerators tend to discourage recycling and lead to greater waste generation.

A research funding initiative started by the NEA in 2020, under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan supported with a funding of S$45 million, has been slated to “enhance our resource efficiency, reducing dependency on incineration and landfilling while at the same time, help to maintain high levels of public health.” With regards to food waste management, the NEA is working with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to carry out research and test-bed innovation solutions, such as converting soya bean waste into useful products in the food chain.

The government and corporations seem committed to increasing efficiency in managing food waste, but this begs the question: What then is the average Singaporean’s role in this?

The impact of food waste on the environment, like all forms of planetary degradation, lasts essentially forever. Here, T Singapore spotlights the issue by speaking to three individuals who are taking charge of food waste management in Singapore with their eco-friendly businesses.

UglyFood: The Ugly Side of Food

Courtesy of UglyFoodLeft: UglyFood transforms perfectly edible ugly produce, otherwise left to waste, into popsicles, juices and dessert bowls. Right: its co-founder, Yeo Pei Shan, began the eco-friendly business as a college project and continues to headquarter operations at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).
Left: UglyFood transforms perfectly edible ugly produce, otherwise left to waste, into popsicles, juices and dessert bowls. Right: its co-founder, Yeo Pei Shan, began the eco-friendly business as a college project and continues to headquarter operations at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

“One of the pressing issues is segregating food waste from other wastes. These issues are important because they are happening on the company level and the scale is much larger than households,” says Yeo Pei Shan, who runs the Singapore start-up, UglyFood. Yeo initially intended to tackle the problem of cosmetic filtering — fresh produce rendered as waste because the shape, colour or size is deemed unsuitable for sale — but has since expanded into food management consultancy, helping suppliers reduce wastage and cut losses due to overestimated demand and surplus produce.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by UglyFood | Grocery Store 🌱 (@uglyfoodco) on

 

One of the major challenges faced by Yeo is increasing UglyFood’s distribution of repurposed ugly produce with limited resources. “We do not have enough resources to build our logistics, transport and distribution team, hence we rely on external parties for our deliveries,” says Yeo, “At times, we do not have full control of the transport and logistics process, which can get frustrating because we want the best and timely deliveries to our customers.”

Government agencies have given UglyFood a massive boost in terms of brand reputation and investor confidence. “For example, the NEA collaborated with us and featured us as part of the Clean and Green Campaign, which allowed us to have a huge publicity reach to the masses,” says Yeo. “Additionally, they do hold environment-related events, roadshows and conferences and invite us so that we can spread the word and also allow us to network and gain more partnerships with groups in the circle.”

Supermarkets and food stores around the world today routinely adopt the merchandising adage, “Pile it high, watch it fly.” “Singaporeans tend to [want to] get everything perfect and everything value-for-money,” says Yeo, who once had a food stall owner show her a box containing “the fruits that either dropped onto the ground, people pinched, poked, or abused till they don’t look fresh anymore. Many buyers are inconsiderate and often just press the fruits without much thought, so fresh fruits turn into ugly food.”

Courtesy of UglyFoodUglyFood’s popsicles.
UglyFood’s popsicles.

Besides going on to motivate Yeo to start UglyFood, the exchange reveals cultural attitudes endemic in Singapore society today. Since its fateful separation from Malaysia on 9 August 1965, Singapore grew rapidly from a fledgeling nation plagued with mass unemployment, housing shortages and lack of land and natural resources to a first world nation towards the end of the 20th century. The rapid progress also engendered a rapid cultural shift — the years of having little to one’s name are memories not so distant to the generation of baby boomers who still routinely compensate by ensuring they have more than enough, and the very best, which applies to food. And when this cultural attitude is applied to procuring fresh produce, this generates more waste as buyers manhandle fruits to ascertain quality and avoid last items on shelves like the plague.

The problem of cosmetic filtering has seen remarkable improvement over the years, with an increased interest from schools and ground-up initiatives, such as SG Food Rescue, a group founded in 2018 who regularly visits wholesalers and wet markets to source for less than perfect produce from vendors. However, to Yeo, the main obstacle towards a greener Singapore is structural changes that have to occur at the level of businesses, a challenging problem that she hopes to address by educating consumers and businesses. “Many companies have to protect their bottom line,” she says. “But I hope more [consumers and businesses] can look past the convenience of throwing away, because as Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, said, there is no such thing as ‘away.’ Things that we throw away have to go somewhere, and do we really want that?”

Treatsure: In the Unwanted Bin, a Treasure Trove

Courtesy of treatsureThrough the treatsure app, consumers can takeaway food from hotel buffets in the last 30 to 60 minutes of meal service.
Through the treatsure app, consumers can takeaway food from hotel buffets in the last 30 to 60 minutes of meal service.

Preston Wong, co-founder of the tech start-up, treatsure, believes that “businesses are still rather conservative and passive about food waste management, while not all consumers subscribe to the sustainability or food-saving message.”

Wong’s company tackles the problem of food waste with a mobile app, released in 2017, that connects businesses and hotels with surplus food to consumers. In partnership with Singapore hotels such as Grand Hyatt and Hotel Jen, the treatsure app allows consumers to take away food from hotel buffets in the last 30 to 60 minutes of each buffet meal slot from S$10 per box. The platform also hosts an array of surplus grocery delivery services (Yeo’s UglyFood is one of its partners) where users can purchase perfectly edible excess, expiring or blemished food items.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by treatsure (@treatsure) on

 

To complement recycling efforts in the country’s management of food waste, Wong believes in reducing, redistributing and repurposing food, but experiences his share of challenges in terms of resource constraints, especially in terms of human and capital resources. Like Yeo’s UglyFood, Wong’s start-up relies on governmental grants, industry engagements and publicity efforts — in 2019, treatsure was one of the recipients of the Year Towards Zero Waste grants and channelled the funds towards improving its mobile app.

“More could be done in terms of allocating greater funding or a higher quantum for more initiatives and projects, as well as providing test-beds and pilot projects and resource connections for many of these projects,” says Wong. “For businesses, the NEA could consider working with Enterprise Singapore to co-invest or inject capital for equity in some of these companies, especially those with a technology edge, to encourage start-up growth and accelerate social impact. The government may also partner [with] more VCs and accelerators to help fund viable sustainability-minded businesses.”

Courtesy of treatsureThe tech start-up’s co- founder, Preston Wong, believes that redistributing and repurposing food is an effective way to combat food wastage.
The tech start-up’s co- founder, Preston Wong, believes that redistributing and repurposing food is an effective way to combat food wastage.

But on the part of consumers, Wong believes in conscious consumption in the form of actively considering surplus food or zero-waste shopping as a viable alternative to other readily available options. “We do see an increasing trend of our users posting on social media about what they whip up with surplus items,” says Wong, who credits social media as an effective platform for consumers to be change advocates by sharing with their peers about food wastage and the possibilities of turning surplus and blemished food items into useful, lovely creations. “Efforts for waste reduction should also expand across the food chain spectrum, and not only on the tail end.”

From Wong’s perspective, a lot of focus in the Year Towards Zero Waste campaign in 2019 was placed on the Resource Sustainability Act legislation mandating waste reporting and on-site digestion in larger retail and kitchen premises, but less attention was given to the reduction and redistribution channels. “I think more can be done in terms of working with food stakeholders to co-create meaningful long-term arrangements in these areas, as well as working with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and the media to make food waste reduction a more lifestyle-friendly message.” Consumers can be responsible by buying according to their needs rather than excessively, so that wrong signals will not be sent to retailers at the stages of stock procurement and forecasting.

Insectta: A Bug’s Life

Courtesy of InsecttaLeft: At Insectta, black soldier fly larvae are fed on pre-consumer food waste, a major contributor to Singapore’s overall food wastage that most consumers have no control over. Right: Chua Kai-Ning is the co-founder and chief marketing director of the eco-conscious start-up.
Left: At Insectta, black soldier fly larvae are fed on pre-consumer food waste, a major contributor to Singapore’s overall food wastage that most consumers have no control over. Right: Chua Kai-Ning is the co-founder and chief marketing director of the eco-conscious start-up.

The Singapore-based company Insectta was founded in 2017, based upon research into the rearing of black soldier flies as an alternative zero-waste method to food waste management. The larvae of black soldier flies consume organic waste rapidly and eventually become animal feed. The excreted insect waste can also be used as fertiliser. However, Insectta has since moved towards extracting high-value biomaterials from the black soldier fly waste, to be used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, in addition to its line of animal feed and fertiliser products.

According to Chua Kai-Ning, co-founder chief marketing director of Insectta, the Singapore company feeds its larvae with “pre-consumer waste,” which refers to waste sourced from the food supply chain before consumers are involved. This includes by-products from the food manufacturing process, such as soy bean pulp generated from the manufacturing of soy bean products, and barley, wheat and malt generated from the brewing of beer. Insectta’s ecosystem of larvae is licensed under the Singapore Food Agency, which ensures traceability and prevents contamination of organic materials fed to its larvae before they go on to serve as livestock feed.

Due to the speed and volume at which the larvae consume organic waste (up to four times their weight a day), along with short life spans as adult flies with the sole purpose to mate (which declassifies them as pests), the method presents itself as an efficient way to manage food waste and reduces the need to grow livestock feed.

Courtesy of InsecttaInsectta produces chitosan, a biomaterial made from chitin extracted from black soldier fly larvae, which is a more sustainable and higher quality alternative to conventional chitosan derived from shrimp and crab shells.
Insectta produces chitosan, a biomaterial made from chitin extracted from black soldier fly larvae, which is a more sustainable and higher quality alternative to conventional chitosan derived from shrimp and crab shells.

To measure the effectiveness of this method in dealing with food waste, Chua says, “We need economies of scale in order to be profitable, as well as to see sustained impact on the supply chain.” At present, insect farming remains a relatively new and niche industry that is dwarfed by mainstream forms of farming, and thus lacks a scale of production to enable economies of scale, cost-savings and a large impact on managing food waste along the supply chain.

“We are still trying to work up that economy of scale to have an impact on the supply chain,” says Chua. “For us to reach there, a lot of it has to do with market acceptance and consumer acceptance of insect-derived products. If consumers are still grossed out by insect-derived products, this industry cannot grow.”

Due to Insectta’s education and outreach programmes, started in October 2019, Singapore’s openness to the concept of insect-driven management of food waste has grown. “We [have] a lot of people who do not think insect farming is foreign. [In the beginning,] people could not even grasp the concept,” says Chua, “but in just slightly over a year [of starting Insectta], if you google ‘insect farming in Singapore,’ you’ll see our name, and you’ll see people talking about it on social media. It’s not alien or foreign to people anymore, with increased media coverage.”

Yet, Chua thinks that consumers’ efforts are largely inconsequential in alleviating the climate’s ailments: “The misconception that many Singaporeans have, firstly, is that the stuff you don’t finish on your plate, or that you leave behind at restaurants or hawker centres, makes up the bulk of food waste. The truth is that makes up a very, very small fraction of food waste.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Upcycling is more than just a buzzword to us, it's a value we live by ♻️ That's why we work with local food producers like @reddotcraftbrewing and @wildbrewbeer who share our commitment to the circular economy. We take their spent grain from the beer brewing process and feed it to our hungry black soldier fly larvae, who convert it into fertilizers, pet feed, and biomaterials 🐛 This means tonnes of spent grain are diverted from the incinerator every week! It takes lots of planning, effort, and work to ensure the grains get from the brewery to our larvae in a timely and hygienic manner, but that's what it takes to start making the change in our waste systems 💪🏻 You can make a difference by supporting your local farms and business as they go green. Stay buggy and have a safe week! 🌱

A post shared by Insectta (@insectta_sg) on

 

Instead, the majority of food waste is generated further up the supply chain. Chua explains, “For example, at the wholesale centre, when there is mismanagement [of stocks], or even [during] the current Covid-19 situation, when we suddenly have supply chain disruptions, a lot of food is going to waste, and this forms the majority of food waste that the world generates.”

“Unfortunately, consumers have no control over it. The power to reduce these kinds of waste lies with corporations, with legislation, with companies coming in to do something about their supply chain management,” says Chua.

Sudden disruptions, like the global pandemic, can clear skies, restore wildlife and scale back global production, but so long as there exists constant effort to keep supply chains running, wastage levels continue to rise. However, Chua believes that the answer to waste management is championing the concept of the “circular economy.”

“The idea is that in the whole economy, there are no waste products,” says Chua. “There are only by-products, which can be valorised to become useful products again.” With that, consumers can play their part by supporting businesses that are trying to take control of the supply chain.

“For example, at Insectta, we take in food waste by the tonne and recycle it into biomaterials and animal feed fertilisers,” says Chua. “So think out of the box, for example, by accepting insect-based products, which, indirectly, are food waste-based products. This is how you can support the recycling and valorisation of food waste, and ultimately reduce it.”

Read the story in the e-magazine