THE administration’s plan to formulate a law on sustainable food waste management marks a commendable step for Malaysia in its quest to address food security. Nonetheless, food security is not only about ensuring sufficient access to safe and nutritious food, but also the ability of the nation to produce sufficient food from available natural resources.

On Aug 3, Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican informed that his ministry is collaborating with the Japanese Environment Ministry to develop food waste management guidelines.

Although the Housing and Local Government Ministry has not specified when the food waste management Act will be introduced, it is currently transforming the national solid waste management framework from a linear economy into a circular economy model.

A linear economy, which entails principles of “take-make-dispose”, is not a sustainable approach as the finished products ultimately will turn into waste. On the other hand, a circular economy involves extending the lifespan of products, recycling waste and reducing the use of resources, that will eventually lessen the amount of waste sent to landfills.

It will be an enormous task for Malaysia to drastically reduce the amount of food waste alone. Even before the pandemic, i.e. in 2019, food refuse made up 30% of waste at landfills, according to the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp).

The Covid-19 pandemic witnessed more food waste nationwide – from 16,964 tonnes per day in 2019 to 17,041 in 2020. Out of 17,007 tonnes of food waste generated in Malaysia every day in 2021, 24% (4,081 tonnes) comprised edible food waste (i.e. leftover meat and vegetables), which is equivalent to a one-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pool. Moreover, Malaysians generated 12,926 tonnes of inedible food waste like bones and fruit peel, more than triple the amount of edible food waste, daily last year.

Thus, the substantial rise of food waste in the country implies that more natural resources (i.e. water, land, energy) will be used unproductively and in a non-sustainable manner. Despite having abundant natural resources to produce food, the country still falls into the food insecurity trap.

With a rising population, does that mean Malaysia will require more landfills? When many Malaysians have a lack of awareness of the proper way to dispose food waste, it is plausible to say that we may need to set up more landfills to accommodate the increasing volume of food waste in the next few years.

As of October 2021, there were 141 solid waste landfills in Malaysia, where 116 were open dump sites, 21 sanitary landfills (engineered with anti-pollution features to allow safe decomposition), and four residual waste landfills. When more landfills are required to accommodate food waste, it implies the food-water-energy nexus will become even harder to realise.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, water and energy security are also linked to food security. Without water and energy, farmers cannot proceed with food production.

Aside from food waste, there are other types of solid waste that may prevent Malaysia from recognising a food-water-energy linkage.

In the same study by SWCorp in 2019, plastics were the second highest waste at landfills at 24.8%, followed by disposable diapers (11.1%), paper (10.5%), textile (4.8%) and waste from gardens and parks (4.1%).

EMIR Research wrote an article that Malaysia used 148,000 tonnes of plastic packaging for food in 2020 alone. As the lockdown measures restricted people from dining out or working from the office, many Malaysians ordered food online. To avoid spillage, most food and beverage outlets packed food in plastic containers and wrapped it in layers of plastic. Some Malaysians also switched to shopping online via e-commerce platforms. This resulted in higher plastic usage.

While the government is trying to reduce food waste at landfills by introducing a new law, now is the time to review existing legislations associated with food, water and energy security. These will supplement and complement the sustainable food waste management Act as well as support our efforts towards ensuring food security. Following are some of the legislations that can be reviewed:

1. Food Act 1983 and Food Regulations 1985

To further promote food safety and nutrition by extending the ban on food additives to permitted limits or levels.

2. Environmental Quality Act 1974

A new category of sustainable food waste management under the wider ambit of environment management needs to be introduced. This will be in line with the policy recommendations of the special task force set up in 2019 to update the Act.

3. Water Services Industry Act 2006

To include acts of sabotage, including economic crimes, as part of the legislation to increase the overall range of penalties and punishments, and complement and supplement the legislation on river and lake pollution under the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

4. Local Government Act 1976

To strengthen enforcement powers of local authorities in dealing with issues on illegal disposal and dumping of food waste in commercial/industrial and residential areas, etc.

5. Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act 2007 (Act 672)

To extend the adoption of this legislation to all states – as part of a wider effort to strengthen the elements of the circular economy nationwide. To make it mandatory for all local councils to adopt waste-to-energy (WTE) mechanisms, with particular reference to food waste as part of the promotion of the circular economy. The target is to have at least WTE plant per major city council. The WTE can be part of the revenue generation sources for local councils. Example would be a thermal treatment plant, where unrecycled solid waste can be converted into heat, steam and other kinds of renewable energy to be reused or be a refuse-derived fuel power plant.

In addition to the Food Donors Protection Act 2020, that has been in place since last year, the government can provide tax incentives to encourage more industrial players to donate their excess food to underprivileged communities.

In addition to reducing food waste in landfills, the excess food can feed around three million people three meals daily.

Former Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin also stated in her new book, “The Unfinished Business”, that Malaysia requires good enforcement, aside from good laws.

Although the Department of Environment (DoE) increased the number of enforcement actions of the Environmental Quality Act 1974 by 100% from 2018, it is still impossible to comprehensively monitor environmental quality and take action from time to time as there are only about 1,400 DoE enforcement officers nationwide.

Besides strengthening the food-water-energy nexus through legal refinement and enforcement, the federal ministers and high-ranking civil servants should go to the ground, understand the hardships people are facing and develop comprehensive solutions to enhance the wellbeing of the people.

EMIR Research has several policy suggestions for the government to look into:

-> Work together with NGO, supermarkets, wholesale markets, hotels, restaurants and food stalls to collect surplus unsold food and channel it to low-income households in People’s Housing Project flats, elderly in welfare homes, as well as the homeless community;

-> Initiate National Food-bank month to create more awareness among the people on the consequences of food wastage; and

-> Organise educational campaigns from the primary school level onwards to encourage children not to waste food, and keep food waste in designated areas set by the canteen operator. Thus, inedible food waste can be turned into compost, and ultimately into fertiliser for gardening or food production.

Malaysians must be proactive. When more people become aware of the importance of disposing solid waste (either food, plastics or paper) in a proper manner, we may be able to close down more landfills.

With rising food prices and inflation, it is only practical for Malaysians to check their refrigerators and larders before shopping for food items.

A grocery list will be helpful when making purchases as only items required will be purchased, and save unnecessary expenditure.

If we can make an effort towards reducing solid waste, we can lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the next few decades, and eventually realise the goals of reducing GHG emissions intensity by 45% in 2030.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. Comments: