By Dr Raseetha Vani Siva Manikam
After the government announced the enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 18, for the first phase up to March 30, to curb the spread of COVID-19, there was panic buying of groceries and other necessities as consumers wanted to stock up on foodstuff. The purchases were mainly highly perishable items such as vegetables, fruits, tofu, raw meat, eggs amongst other dry food and frozen foods.
Food stocked up
The announcement of the MCO happened all of a sudden after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, by the World Health Organisation. However, those involved in the hotel industries, canteens (universities, schools, factories and companies), restaurants, food outlets, malls, theme parks and entertainment outlets would have had their food stocked up. Some of these institutions literally had to remain closed or suffered from fewer than the usual number of customers showing up.
Although restaurants and food outlets were allowed to open for takeaway during the MCO, customers preferred to stay home. It was a crucial and challenging time for these people as they needed to think of a way to use up the food stock. Similarly, an excessive amount of food was being stocked up in each house across the nation.
This stocking-up phenomena would have led to agricultural and food waste. Although there has been an aggressive campaign for reuse, recycle and reduce, it is hardly achieved in the agriculture waste context. About 15 per cent of the total waste accumulation is contributed by agriculture waste. It has been estimated that the spiking of waste accumulation was up to 38,142 tonnes in 2018 compared to 19,000 tonnes in 2005.
Food waste generated during pandemic
Meanwhile, in the food and beverage industry, 80 per cent of the waste is contributed by the unused parts of fruits and vegetables in food preparation, whereas the remaining 20 per cent is contributed by left-over food generated by consumers. Similar waste is generated by domestic households during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, the Food Aid Foundation reported that Malaysians wasted almost 15,000 tonnes of food, including 3,000 tonnes of edible food, every day.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in Malaysia was 7.34 million tonnes in 2005 and is predicted to increase to 10.9 million tonnes in 2020. From the statistics, 60 per cent of the MSW constituted food waste including fruits and vegetables. The vegetables and fruits that are being grown in Malaysia also undergo some industrial processing, for example the production of canned fruit, fruit juice and as flavouring.
Due to the high consumption and industrial processing of the edible parts of the fruits, fruit wastes such as watermelon rind, mango peel, rambutan skin and other fruit residues, principally the peels and the seeds, are generated in large quantities especially at the food industrial area and in big cities, for example Kuala Lumpur.
On top of this difficult situation, farmers, growers and suppliers are left shattered without a place to channel their fresh produce. Suppliers choose to revert their produce to markets to keep their business afloat. Some fruit wholesalers had to discard hundreds of tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables due to the closure of markets. Several markets had been identified with positive COVID-19 cases and a full sanitisation procedure had to be carried out.
Reducing waste accumulation
The government’s effort to reduce waste accumulation is achievable in terms of plastic, paper, cans and metal. However, agriculture waste is rarely recycled. The concept inspired more independent planning to reduce food waste including MYSave Food Programme in which the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry (MOA) are the coordinators of the MYSave Food Programme which promotes the reduction of food loss and food waste in Malaysia.
In the capacity of research exploration, each type of agricultural waste has its own function depending on the content in the waste itself. If the waste can be consumed, then it may be transformed into a new food product to extend its shelf life. If it is not edible, instead of throwing it away, the waste can be turned into products such as biodegradable cutlery and containers, animal feed or fertiliser for plants as the waste may still have the nutrient content.
Composting would be the simplest way to turn waste from household kitchens into organic material that can be added to fertile soil to help plant growth. Whether you’ve got a big backyard or a small apartment, composting can reduce the trash volume in landfills. Food items such as fruit peels, vegetable scraps, spent coffee, coffee grounds and egg shells can be used for composting.
Dr Raseetha Vani Siva Manikam is a senior lecturer, Food Science and Technology Programme, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Shah Alam, Malaysia.