Liz Thomas’ friends and family were horrified when she asked restaurant staff to pack up leftovers to take home. She made them even more uncomfortable when she started bringing her own containers, but she didn’t care.
“It made me think how casual it is for us to throw away food and so my husband and a friend started talking about ways to make a difference,” she says.
After nine months sacrificing evenings and weekends to find a solution, they recently launched Food Savior in Hong Kong where they live. It is an online platform that helps restaurants advertise food that is made fresh but is not sold the same day and will be thrown out unless someone buys it.
She compares it to an initiative by Marks & Spencer, which discounts expiring food near closing time. With Food Savior, unused fresh-food portions are available at all times of the day, because they can be used for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
“It’s been well received so far,” says Thomas, who started by cold calling and e-mailing restaurants.
Those who understood what Food Saviour was doing immediately jumped on board.
One of the bestsellers so far has been small blocks of gourmet French cheese from the wine bar La Cabane. Unused fresh food items sell on Food Savior almost as soon as they are posted.
Thomas knows her grassroots approach is just scratching the surface, with almost four tonnes of food waste dumped daily in the Hong Kong’s landfills, but she hopes buying unused restaurant food will take off.
Charities such as Food Angel and Feeding Hong Kong collect food from supermarkets, suppliers, hotels, restaurants and bakeries, while a group of restaurants formed the Zero Waste Alliance to try to decrease wastage. Each member has its own way of dealing with the problem.
When Linguini Fini moved into its premises in Elgin Street, Hong Kong’s SoHo dining district, in November 2014, the restaurant bought a composter. It uses the nutrient-rich fertiliser for its own garden and donates the rest to schools with gardens.
Mana! Fast Slow Food on nearby Wellington Street has the most holistic environmental message of the group. It serves only organic, plant-based food, uses compostable and biodegradable packaging, and even pays a truck company to transport organic food waste several days a week to the New Territories to be composted for farmers to use.
Not just for charity
“We’d like to encourage all of Hong Kong to turn food waste into a valuable resource by composting. For example, if one small vegetarian restaurant is generating 1.5 tonnes of food scraps and waste every month alone, just imagine how much all of Hong Kong’s estimated 11,000 restaurants are generating,” says owner Bobsy Gaia.
Peggy Chan agrees. The chef-owner of vegetarian restaurant Grassroots Pantry is dismayed at how food waste is dealt with in Hong Kong.
“Why should a stand-alone restaurant have excess food? Charities can’t take most of the food because of fears of contamination. There are more regulations against companies giving food away than for me as an individual,” she says.
She says the Zero Waste Alliance is working with Baguio Waste Management And Recycling to collect food scraps for composting, and if more restaurants in the area are interested, it would be more economically feasible, as there is no government support for this initiative.
“Recycling (of) food waste is not a habit in Hong Kong. Look at Taiwan and Japan. It’s a priority for them, but Hong Kong is not there yet,” she says.
Beware of surplus
Chan is careful about how much food she orders from suppliers. “Chefs are not skilled in that they order too much because they worry about running out of food,” she says. “That’s old-school thinking. It’s because there is a lack of communication and the food rots and no one knows.”
She and her team try to streamline orders, and make things in small batches. Even where vegetables are placed in the refrigerator can affect their shelf life.
“We need to order three to four days in advance, so storage is important. We used to have our fresh vegetables in the back of the fridge and soon they would get frostbite,” Chan says. “We now put them closer to the front of the fridge. So far we’ve managed to cut 40% on food costs even though we have many organic items.”
Practically every part of each vegetable is used, including beetroot ends that are roasted and put in the gnocchi. Vegetable peel goes into the stock, and even carrot tops are pickled or stir-fried.
Meanwhile, in Macau
In Macau, Sands China planned waste-management systems at its four properties before they were constructed. It has at least one compost machine in each of its casino properties to tackle food waste.
Syed Mubarak, director of sustainability for the Sands group, takes us down to The Venetian’s car park to see the Eco-Safe Digester. It has its own small shed, it is clean and doesn’t smell. A tall plastic bin full of vegetable and fruit waste is emptied into the composter and enzymes and hot water are added. Within 24 hours it becomes waste water, which is then pumped to the city’s wastewater treatment plant and recycled for use in toilets and gardens.
Mubarak says the latest technology creates water, rather than compost, out of the waste.
Although the “food digester” can process a range of meat, vegetables, bread and even coffee grounds, Mubarak says Sands is only focusing on organic food waste from the kitchens. In the past two-and-a-half years, more than 1,000 tonnes of food waste have been diverted from landfills. Nevertheless, Sands is piloting a composter to process post-consumer waste into fish food or bio fuel.
“We also keep asking event organisers how many people are coming, to overcome supply and demand mismatch. We have to keep educating the food and beverage team – if they don’t bring everyone together, it doesn’t work.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department says the government hopes to cut food waste dumped in landfills by 40% by 2022.
It has launched campaigns encouraging customers to order less in restaurants, provided tips on how to use food trimmings, and recognises hotels and restaurants that cut food waste and donate leftovers to NGOs.
According to a report, Monitoring Of Solid Waste In Hong Kong – Waste Statistics For 2015, released last December, food waste in landfills in 2015 was down by 7.1% year-on-year, though still amounted to 33% of all municipal solid waste.
The government plans to build five or six dedicated recycling plants, with the first one ready for testing in Siu Ho Wan, North Lantau, in the second quarter of this year.
The organic food waste will be turned into biogas for power generation, and composting, with the aim of diverting about 70,000 tonnes of food waste from landfills each year. The second plant will be in Sha Ling in North District.
Public relations and advertising students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong recently made a video to raise awareness of waste in fast food restaurants.
They visited three outlets in Aberdeen, secretly filming as meals went unfinished. They collected leftovers in a box and asked members of the public to identify the items and guess the weight.
“We spent less than 15 minutes in each restaurant and we were able to collect a total of 2.7kg of leftover food,” says Ivie Yeung Suet-lin.
“If we collected so much food in a short period of time in just three restaurants, imagine how much food waste there would be in the whole of Hong Kong,” she says. “Hongkongers are so wasteful. They can be impulsive when they want to eat something and then not finish it.”
Yeung says it’s ironic that as children we are taught to finish our food, but ignore this advice as we get older.
After posting the video on Facebook, people commented that they didn’t realise so much food got wasted. “Although we did this for a social media campaign competition, we think this is an important issue and will continue promoting it on our Facebook page,” she says. – South China Morning Post/Bernice Chan