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Malaysia government keen to reduce food waste, but councils are accused of inaction

| 31 May, 2019 | General
 Richard Whitehead
Malaysia government keen to reduce food waste, but councils are accused of inaction

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia will not meet its commitment to halve food waste by 2030 if it doesn’t start putting strong measures in place straight away, according to a leading food bank.

The pledge is among the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) the country has signed up to meet, at a time when the quantity of uneaten food Malaysia produces is in danger of running rampant, Salaam Gateway was told.

“We are supposed to be working to halve waste by 2030 and it’s already 2019. If we don’t do anything in the next three years maximum, there’s no way we will reach this target,” said Hayati Ismail, director of operations at the Kuala Lumpur-based Food Aid Foundation.

The non-profit recovers and repurposes surplus food, which it distributes to the needy in the Klang Valley region that surrounds the Malaysian capital. It takes in food from manufacturers, distributors, markets, supermarkets and foodservice establishments, which it checks for safety before being distributed to orphanages, poor families and soup kitchens, among other recipients. The foundation “rescues” 20-30 tonnes of food on average each week.

“This may sound like a large amount but it is still not enough compared to the amount wasted every day,” Hayati added.

Malaysians dump some 17,000 tonnes of food each day, according to the latest data from the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation, a government-backed company charged with carrying out national waste management policies. It estimates this is enough to feed 12 million people.

RAMADAN ‘FEASTING’, NOT FASTING

The volume of food waste typically increases by 15-20 percent each Ramadan.

Addressing this, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad singled out food waste as a problem in his national broadcast at the start of Ramadan. In the video address on May 5, he told Muslims to “exercise restraint” by not buying too much food at Ramadan bazaars, which are ubiquitous at this time of year. Many Malaysians visit these to buy the food with which they will break their fasts.

Mahathir’s words added a seal to environmental initiatives that have been put into practice in the year since he became prime minister. The government kicked off a “Ramadan without waste” awareness campaign, for instance, to urge Malaysians to be parsimonious in their food buying habits.

“I call on everyone to change their attitude and think 10 times before buying food at Ramadan bazaars this year so as not to contribute to an excessive amount of food wastage which may also affect the environment,” Mujahid Yusof, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, told reporters after launching the campaign, which is being led by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM).

“I think the biggest waste comes at this time of year because we aren’t really fasting: it’s more like we are feasting,” said Hayati. "The only way [to prevent waste] is to downsize the Ramadan bazaars because that is where the uncontrolled food wastage is coming from.”

She doesn’t believe local authorities have the wherewithal or the motivation to do much about the waste they produce. City councils often rent out space to stallholders, so they have an economic incentive to encourage more food vendors. Out of the hundreds of stalls at the bigger bazaars, one might find a dozen that each sell the same food items, she says, adding that such a large number of food vendors, and the doubling-up they cause, should be addressed by the council prior to issuing permits.

“The councils needs to look into specialties because people should be able to find food that they can’t get every day. Now going to a Ramadan bazaar is like going to a pasar malam,” she said, referring to regular non-Ramadan night markets that are known for the uncommon foods they sell.

Salaam Gateway was unable to get a response from two of the leading councils in the Klang Valley, DBKL, which governs Kuala Lumpur, and MBPJ, which runs the city of Subang Jaya in the suburbs of the capital.

However, Petaling Jaya’s Department of Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing was keen to point out the efforts it has been making to tackle the waste problem in the city.

“Our department has allocated in total 26 solid waste collection bins, with two at each location, for all the 13 Ramadan food bazaars that are in the Petaling Jaya area. Their contents are collected and sent to a compost center to be processed as fertilizer,” Nor Hazita binti Zakaria, an environmental health officer, told Salaam Gateway.

“We have also organised a program called Hero Hijau Ramadan [Ramadan Green Hero] to urge bazaar-goers to bring their own food containers, in line with a campaign we run to reduce the use of plastic bags.”

Aside from consumers buying too much food, and food stores and outlets overstocking, another source of waste at this time of year comes from a surprising source.

A WASTE OF CHARITY

Mimi Liana Nasharuddin, a founder of Feeding the Needy, which runs a soup kitchen in Kuala Lumpur, says many of those who donate food to the poor are actually adding to the waste problem.

“Most of them do this because they feel the need to give sadaqat. In their minds, as long as they do this they will be rewarded. But they buy too much and give it to random people, rather than donating the food to an organisation that knows what is needed and how to distribute it,” she told Salaam Gateway.

“They have this attitude because of social media, where they post photos showing them helping the needy. It’s all about being seen to be doing good, but they aren’t helping. A lot of the time a needy person will already have eaten at a place like ours so they don’t need the donation and the food goes to waste.”

She doesn’t believe councils are doing a great deal to reduce waste in this regard as they don’t know enough about how organisations like Food Aid Foundation and Feeding the Needy operate.

“We don’t see DBKL around unless their bosses decide they need to enforce and come round to our soup kitchen and see what we are feeding the people. They don’t really go out and see what’s happening on the streets,” she added.

Likewise, Hayati says she doubts councils are looking into the waste issue and finding solutions to it, whereas the central government appears more enthusiastic.

GOVERNMENT GOOD SAMARITAN BILL

Another of the government’s waste-reduction strategies was a food bank programme it launched last August to arrange for the collection and distribution of surplus food.

Hayati is also cheered that the prime minister knows all about food wastage and appears keen to do something about it.

“We are glad that Tun Mahathir supports the national food bank programme. He is aware of food wastage because he used to own a bakery himself. That sparked his interest,” she said.

So far, around 120,000 people have benefited from the government’s food bank programme, and the Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs is expected to table a bill which will formalise the initiative, a move designed to safeguard both food recipients and contributors.

This so-called “Good Samaritan” bill will go a long way to help Malaysia slow the pace its food waste is being generated, but this will still be far off from the UN’s SDGs it committed to, Hayati believes.

“Reducing food waste by 50 percent is actually doable, and we are seeing that with the food bank scheme. By the time the Good Samaritan law is passed by the end of this year, we should start looking to push it further towards local councils and encourage them to take part in it.

“But all of this needs to be done in just the next two or three years or it will be too late to start. We have to take action, otherwise it will all go to waste,” she added.

(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim emmy.alim@refinitiv.com)

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