Published: 02:23, September 7, 2023 | Updated: 09:41, September 7, 2023
Restaurant customers have role to play in curbing food waste
By Lam Shun-wa and Kacee Ting Wong

Our survival depends on food, but our survival is also indirectly threatened by food waste. The inability of local landfills to provide a sustainable solution to the food-waste problem has dragged the problem of culinary abundance to the edge of despair. 

At stake is not only the responsibility of the food and beverage industry to take effective steps to reduce food waste and minimize its negative impact on the environment, but also the responsibility of everyone to avoid ordering more food than they want or need on their plate.

According to the Environment Protection Department (EPD), most of Hong Kong’s food waste is disposed of at landfills together with other municipal solid waste (MSW). In 2020, some 10,809 metric tons of MSW was dumped at landfills each day. Of this, about 3,255 tons (30 percent) was food waste, constituting the largest MSW category. The latest figures, from 2021, indicate that food waste still constitutes 30 percent of solid rubbish sent to landfill each day.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government was able to use household waste as a resource for land reclamation. However, by the late 1950s, the Urban Council came to realize that land reclamation was no longer a sustainable waste management system. This was because Hong Kong had entered an era of postwar industrialization and an environmentally harmful mixture of solid waste had begun to replace organic waste (Nele Fabian and Loretta Ieng Tak Lou, The Struggle for Sustainable Waste Management in Hong Kong: 1950s -2010s, in Worldwide Waste Journal).

The current practice of disposing food waste in landfills is not a sustainable solution as it consumes valuable landfill capacity and wastes useful organic resources. In addition to the eco-efforts made by the food and beverage industry to reduce food waste, everyone should change their eating habits to avoid culinary abundance created by overordering

Currently, Hong Kong has three strategic landfills in use, all in the New Territories. The fact that our existing landfills are almost full has catapulted the problem of food waste to the forefront of media coverage. Since landfill gas is harmful to human health and toxic to the environment, the government has spent vast resources on landfill gas management. For example, leachate, which is a major source of contamination, is treated using landfill gas to provide heat. Strict criteria are specified by the EPD to ensure that the treatment is safe and free from harmful release.

There is a growing recognition that the food and beverage industry should focus on waste reduction. Being a senior executive chef, one of the co-authors of this article has previously tried to employ the best cooking and plate-presenting techniques to create physically attractive food with the perfect balance of flavor combinations to persuade customers to order more than they can consume. Unable to finish all the ordered food, these spoiled customers created leftovers and added fuel to the fire of food wastage. But a chef has to discharge his duty by creating the best food for customers.

Instead of putting the blame on the chef, customers should resist the above temptation and say no to excessive and unnecessary ordering. Some customers refuse to return home with the leftovers because they are afraid of losing face in front of their guests and waiters. The plea for environmentally friendly dining habits should no longer fall on stony ground. The EPD should launch an educational campaign to promote proper dining habits.

In fact, some top restaurants and bars in Hong Kong are taking eco-steps in the right direction, with chefs and bartenders finding innovative ways to reduce and reuse ingredients. Some have even earned Michelin Green Stars for these efforts. For instance, the Penicillin bar deserves credit for launching a new menu starring 10 cocktails all made with a zero-waste approach.

Donating surplus food to charitable organizations offers a win-win solution to the food-waste problem. Owners of supermarkets, restaurants, fast-food chains and bars should have their hearts in the right place by helping the poor and needy people in the city. Food Angel has earned a reputation for serving the poor by collecting surplus food from these outlets. With the support of volunteers, Food Angel has consistently provided free meals for the less well-off.

It is worthy of note that the EPD launched a large-scale pilot program on food waste collection in 2021, focusing on food waste generated from the private (commercial and industrial sectors) and public premises. Source-separated food waste collected under the program will be transformed into energy, and compost as a byproduct at O.Park1 on Lantau Island. O.Park1, which is the first organic resources recovery center in Hong Kong, opened at Siu Ho Wan in 2018. It operates as a sustainable alternative to landfills and creates biogas by breaking down waste to generate fuel for power generation. Other leftovers are turned into compost.

Although some eco-measures cannot reduce food waste in a direct manner, they play an important role in reducing the carbon footprint. Some restaurants, fully aware of the problems caused by food miles, source fruit, vegetables and chicken from local farms. Promoting vegetarian cuisine and cell-cultivated meat is also an effective way to reduce the environmental effects of grazing, growing feed for animals and dealing with their waste. It is estimated by Nature Food that meat accounts for nearly 60 percent of all the greenhouse gases emitted during food production.

To conclude, the current practice of disposing food waste in landfills is not a sustainable solution as it consumes valuable landfill capacity and wastes useful organic resources. In addition to the eco-efforts made by the food and beverage industry to reduce food waste, everyone should change their eating habits to avoid culinary abundance created by overordering.

Meg Arroll and Louise Atkinson suggest that we should create our own food diary to uncover emotional eating pattern and identify triggers that might prompt overeating (Meg Arroll and Louise Atkinson, The Shrinkology Solution). Sometimes anxiety can trigger emotional eating patterns and prompt overeating. If the food diary can help identify triggers that prompt overeating, the temptation of ordering too much food in restaurants can be resisted.

Lam Shun-wa is a senior executive chef, director of catering industry affairs of Chinese Dream Think Tank. 

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center, chairman of Chinese Dream Think Tank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.