Singapore has a food waste problem. How 'black gold' is helping fix it

Pui Cuifen turns food waste into compost in Singapore. In 2018, the city state produced 763,000 tonnes of food waste, of which only 17 per cent was recycled.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

It’s a Tuesday morning and Pui Cuifen is on a mission at the Yuhua Village Market and Food Centre in Jurong East, western Singapore. She plans to pick up several tubs full of used coffee grounds set aside by Daniel Yan, manager of Han N Han Peanut Pancake.

It’s an arrangement they’ve had since January – Pui and a small group of other compost-makers take turns to collect used coffee grounds to add to compost at community-supported gardens in nearby towns.

In return, they take friends and family to enjoy peanut pancakes, and bring along plants and vegetables to share with Yan.

Pui is one of a legion of zero-waste warriors who have turned to composting. Composting speeds up the decomposition of organic material such as leaves and vegetable scraps by providing ideal conditions for microorganisms to thrive, in turn creating nutrient-rich material for growing plants.

Food waste has long been a problem in food-obsessed Singapore. In 2018, the city state produced 763,000 tonnes of food waste. According to official statistics, only 17 per cent of that was recycled.

Pui Cuifen picks up tubs of used coffee grinds at the Yuhua Village Market and Food Centre for composting.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Over the last few years, the country has become more aware of the problem and there is an increased willingness to reduce food waste.

A 2019 survey commissioned by the National Environment Agency asked 1,000 Singapore residents about food waste and found the public’s shopping, cooking, eating and catering habits had become more environmentally conscious. “Interestingly, some households [3 per cent] are composting their food waste,” the survey concluded.

Last month, Singapore unveiled its inaugural Zero Waste Masterplan, which will see large malls, hotels and caterers forced to segregate food waste starting in 2024. The waste can be treated and converted for other uses, such as animal feed or compost for landscaping.

Pui, 39, is one of the pioneers of the composting movement . A former environmental scientist, she is a founding member of the Foodscape Collective, a network of people, groups and businesses who work together to create a fair, inclusive and regenerative food system. She now works as a consultant to spread the word.

In 2014, Pui began composting at her housing estate’s community garden in the Bukit Gombak neighbourhood, drawing on the experience of neighbours who loved to tinker in their backyards – people she calls “self-trained permaculture experts”.

“It’s a lot like making a cake,” she says of her composting. “You have to know your ingredients – your browns, your greens – and layer them. Add water as needed and give it some time. Let the microbes do the work.”

A look at what immature compost looks like before it is sent to a maturation bin.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Composting is both an art and science, and things can go wrong. If it’s composed of garden trimmings, twigs and leaves, it should smell like the rainforest, and compost piles made with natural materials are also the easiest to manage.

But if the pile is loaded with too many processed materials such as cardboard, it can have “indigestion”, just like the human gut. Fruit pulp can create a funky smell and attract flies.

There are many different types of composting, including pile composting, trench composting, composting in tumbler bins, worm composting and black-soldier-fly composting. “Learning about composting can be anything from kindergarten level to PhD level,” Pui jokes.

Eager to take the practice beyond her own neighbourhood, Pui and her friends had the chance in 2017 to salvage 350kg (771 pounds) of banana peel at a major marathon event and truck it to five community gardens nationwide.

Close-up of food waste being sorted.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

These ad hoc beginnings marked the start of the #CompostCollaborations initiative. Pui has since created an online map to connect compost-makers, of which there are now at least 30, and food-scrap providers – 60 of them – in the collaboration. Even a major hotel has hopped on the bandwagon.

In a pilot programme with Sheraton Towers Singapore, under way since February, Pui and others regularly collect up to a carload of food waste at the hotel’s unloading bay. She compares the waste to a “buffet spread”. The waste is then taken to compost sites around the city.

The hotel also has its own large composter machine. The chefs take turns to help with the process daily and the compost is used to enrich a small herb garden on its premises.

The Sheraton Towers Singapore hotel has its own composter machine. The chefs take turns to help out with the compost process daily.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Despite the labour-intensive job, executive chef Eric Cheam, 44, feels it is vital for younger chefs to learn more about the zero-waste journey.

“We appreciate that food doesn’t come easy,” Cheam says. “All the fresh produce from the market is the result of the farmers’ hard work under the hot sun.”

This year, Pui and collaborator Chen Chingwei are co-leading the new Project Black Gold, an initiative funded by the OCBCCares Environment Fund. Using their knowledge and experience, the duo are working with three neighbourhoods for four months to encourage more people in the community to participate in food-scrap composting.

The project includes online lessons, held over four sessions via Zoom, for budding compost-makers and food-scrappers.

Residents at Regent Heights – a condominium complex in one of the three selected neighbourhoods – were so keen to get going that they asked to start their online lessons and hands-on sessions in July.

Anuradha Singhal, a 47-year-old homemaker and one of the founders of the Regent Heights gardening group, recalls how she and her neighbours were confused when they tried composting on their own. They have since learned from Chen, who has experience with the practice in rural and urban Australia.

Sheraton Towers Singapore executive chef Eric Cheam (right) empties compost into the maturation bin.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Now, more and more condo residents – young and old – are bringing bags of food waste down to the garden every Sunday morning. The compost-makers weigh the scraps to ensure the correct ratio is added to the pile and use a special thermometer to check whether the compost is hot enough. If needed, sawdust is added to speed up the process.

It was an “emotional feeling” to see the kitchen waste turn into 60kg worth of compost, says Singhal. The group used it to nourish the condo’s garden plants, including papaya trees, blue pea and morning glory, and then hosted small cookouts to enjoy the produce.

“It’s more than just the act of composting, but about building a community with our neighbours,” Singhal says.

Condo residents bring down bags full of food waste to a community garden in Singapore.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Elsewhere, in the sleepy estate of Redhill in central Singapore, another composting movement is quietly taking off.

One of the newest players on the block, City Sprouts runs Singapore’s first plot-share urban community farm . Located in a former primary school, the greenhouse space is let to hobbyists and aspiring farmers looking to test ideas such as growing plants exotic to Singapore: mustard wasabina, mushrooms, turnips and dwarf fruit trees, for example.

About 13 regular food-scrappers routinely contribute around two weeks’ worth of food waste stored in their freezers, or up to 2kg per trip, to the compost heap. City Sprouts has also started virtual home composting workshops and organised Farm Day Out tours.

Chee Zhi Kin envisions City Sprouts to be a future hub for food waste collection and composting. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Co-founder Chee Zhi Kin, 26, feels there was a “strong disconnect” between urban Singapore, farming history and agri-tech ambitions. “There’s something lacking,” he says. “Maybe it’s the lack of spirit of sharing, how we are not in touch with what we eat. There’s a lack of ownership over our space.”

The psychology graduate previously worked with NGOs in Yogyakarta and Bali in Indonesia to promote high-yield farming, and he helped set up an experimental farm in Laos.

He sees City Sprouts as a future hub for food-waste collection and composting, possibly even with black soldier flies to help chow down the waste. “We have crazy dreams of what it can be,” he says.

Pui is part of a legion of zero-waste warriors who are turning to composting, an unfamiliar concept to many younger Singaporeans.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Still, this is a largely alien idea for many Singaporeans.

Chee remembers how they were met with “weird stares” when his team tried to convince soy milk sellers and bakeries to donate their scraps for composting.

Pui says minds have to change, though. Too many Singaporeans still associate community gardens with elderly people or those “with nothing better to do”, she adds.

A Sunday garden session with the Regent Heights residents as they get busy composting.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

She hopes Singapore will become a place with thriving community compost networks across different neighbourhoods, with people setting aside food scraps for composting while bonding with each other. They can “harvest this mountain of black gold” that regenerates our soil and grows the food we eat, she says.

“My neighbours and composting taught me to see the world differently,” Pui says. “Previously, I thought the park looked dirty, with many unswept leaves. Now I see the leaves as a reflection of the abundance that we have. The garden is blessed.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.