How our eating-out culture is fueling the global food waste crisis

Rami Salemdeeb

03 March 2019

I was invited to speak at the 2018 International Solid Waste Association Congress in Kuala Lumpur. Attended by 1,500 delegates, the congress was an ideal hub to discuss the industry’s biggest challenges in Malaysia, South-East Asia, and indeed the globe. We discussed the impact of China’s ban on imported plastic, the escalating challenge of marine litter, and the global pervasion of illegal open dumpsites. Nevertheless, the moment I had stepped outside the conference hall to visit a local restaurant and enjoy a traditional Malaysian dish*, the food waste crisis in the hospitality sector emerged, revealing its gigantic scale.

Nasi Lemak

In Malaysia (and I presume across the whole region), the number of restaurants has increased substantially to meet the nutritional demands of the world’s fastest growing regions. The rise of Asia’s middle class, coupled with low food prices, has fueled a fierce competition between restaurants to attract customers using endless techniques: introducing wide variety of recipes and authentic international dishes; serving bigger portions; and charging ridiculously cheaper prices. These appealing offers have attracted families (particularly young couples) who like to try new dishes but less keen on spending time cooking.

The abundance of food choices and the relatively low prices are not the only factors that have led the country to this situation, cultural aspects contribute to the growth of this gigantic problem too. Traditional dining etiquette in Malaysia (and across the region) encourages hosts to order lots of food to show their guests hospitality. The eating-out culture has made the hospitality sector to contribute significantly to the amount food waste generated in the region. For example, recent estimates suggest that the foodservice industry in China is wasting about 17-18 million tonnes of food every year, enough to feed 30-50 million people.

Chinese Food


Astonished by the vast magnitude of food waste, I was eager to investigate how the region is tackling this major, borderless epidemic which puts an even greater strain on resources in a region that is dealing with an ever-growing population. The hospitality sector is seen as a key player in the battle to reduce food waste, and efforts to tackle the issue have been gradually spreading. Below, I list three innovative examples on how the region has made its first steps in winning the war against food waste.

  • Malaysia – Hayati’s Food Aid Foundation has launched a country-wide program to redistribute surplus food that would have otherwise been thrown away. It collects unserved dishes from hotels, night markets and Ramadan bazaars, and then distribute it to charities. with 3,000 tonnes of edible food waste every day, the foundation has embarked on a long journey to make a difference in Malaysia.
  • Japan – Asians love trying different types of food and therefore end up over-ordering. To alleviate this problem, a Chinese restaurant now offers an all-you-can-eat course in which one-fifth of the 125 menu items can be ordered individually — one spring roll, a single serving of Peking duck or one sesame ball, for example. This menu has been so popular, in particular with elderly people who want to try dishes they like.
  • Singapore – Technology, unsurprisingly, has been also utilized in this war against food waste. Worldwide, smartphone apps have been launched to facilitate the selling of unsold dishes and leftover foodstuffs to customers who want to eat cheaply. Entrepreneur Tan Yuan developed 11th Hour, an app hat shows users discounted menu items offered by restaurants and food stalls in Singapore before they close.

11th Hour. Photo sourced by Google


All the initiatives I came across were initiated by either passionate individuals or non-governmental environmental organizations. Unfortunately, community-based activities without the involvement of local authorities won’t be sufficient to uproot the food crisis. In Malaysia, the majority of food outlets are family-run and hence it is highly unlikely that their owners would afford efficiency improvement measures without financial support. Governments should therefore step up and support small enterprises by providing both technical advice and financial funding. To the best of my knowledge, Scotland is the first country to realize the importance of supporting SMEs. Resource Efficient Scotland programme is a one-stop center for advice to businesses on saving energy, water and waste. Since its inception, the programme has implemented lifetime cost savings of more than £200 million, avoiding more than 1 million tonnes of carbon savings.

Food waste is and will remain one of the humanity’s greatest challenges. Overarching consensus exists amongst professionals, scientists, and farmers that reducing food waste is a key step in our journey to meet the global food demand. We -consumers- have a vital role to play in various aspects. We should be more responsible and socially and environmentally conscious when it comes to dinning outside. More importantly, we should use our voices and purchasing power to halt unsustainable business practices and exercise pressure on businesses to be more responsible and take concrete actions to reduce food waste. In his book The Now Revolution, author Jay Baer shared some examples on how we – customers- have collaboratively managed to use our power to influence business attitudes and force companies into greater social responsibility. One early example was the Greenpeace social media campaign against Nestlé’s implicit support for deforestation in Malaysia.

*For those interested in Malaysian cuisine, the name of the dish is Nasi Lemak.

About the Author

Dr Ramy Salemdeeb is an award-winning Cambridge engineer with rich and diverse experience of providing technical advice on resource efficiency, climate change, and sustainability. Dr Salemdeeb is Environmental Analyst at Zero Waste Scotland, an organization that is leading the way on making Scotland a circular economy nation.

This is a repost of the ISWA blog website




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