With its beautiful Buddhist temples, vibrant culture and world-famous street food, Bangkok, Thailand is a tourist mecca. However, while the city attracts millions of visitors each year, it also faces a food waste problem. Uneaten food makes up 46 per cent of the nearly 10,000 tonnes of solid waste the city collects every day.
Traditionally, most of the food waste ends up in landfills. Local authorities have invested in innovative solutions, such as central compost facilities and waste-to-energy plants. Now, young entrepreneurs are also helping to tackle the food waste challenge by leveraging green technology and other innovations.
“We, [the younger generation], know that the burden of an unsustainable world will fall on our shoulders,” says actor Alex Rendell, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Goodwill Ambassador for Thailand.
“Some of us take action through our voices, helping to raise awareness,” Rendell adds. “Others are combining their interest in innovation and technology with the drive for a healthier world.”
The recently concluded UN Food Systems Summit highlighted innovation as key to transforming the way humanity produces and disposes of food.
UNEP is working with partners in Bangkok, including young entrepreneurs, to support that process. With the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste around the corner, here’s a look at five startups leading the charge against food waste.
Doing good with surplus food
A large part of surplus food is perfectly edible and high quality – think of the food leftover from hotel buffets. Scholars of Sustenance (SOS), a food rescue foundation, donates surplus food to low-income communities across the city. Between January and April 2021, SOS collected 404 tonnes of surplus food – equivalent to 1.7 million meals – and saved more than $19,000 in disposal costs.
Extending the shelf life of food products
Eden Agritech is a Bangkok-based startup that aims to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables with its patented “Naturen” technology. Produce covered in this invisible, chemical-free edible coating lasts up to five times longer than normal while maintaining its nutritional quality.
Using data to track and reduce kitchen waste
In restaurants, waste occurs even before food is served to customers. Bones, shells, peels and roots all often end up in the trash. Also, chefs sometimes buy more food than they can use.
LightBlue Environmental Consulting has built an app that lets restaurants track kitchen waste. The programme, Food Intel Tech, produces in-depth reports analyzing where eateries are wasting food, helping them to be more efficient. With food waste representing 6 to 14 per cent of food revenue, this is beneficial for both the environment and business.
Promoting circular business models
Wastegetable, a Bangkok-based social enterprise, turns food waste into compost used for growing fruits and vegetables. The produce is grown on the rooftops of office buildings across the city, an endeavour managed by sister company Bangkok Rooftop Farming. This closed-loop business model both promotes urban farming – which greatly shortens the food supply chain and limits associated carbon emissions – and tackles food waste.
UncleRee Farm specializes in composting with a twist. The company uses earthworms, black soldier flies and other native insects to help compost food, a process known as vermiculture. Worm compost has more nutrients than traditional compost, helping to accelerate plant growth. UncleRee works with local communities to turn food waste into useful products, including what’s known as bio-fermented water, a multipurpose liquid that can be used to treat wastewater and repel insects. UncleReee also trains city residents on how to practice vermiculture in their own homes.
The way forward
Most of these startups are still nascent or operating in niche markets. To scale up their impact, experts say, an enabling policy environment is needed. It should include economic incentives and regulations that ensure green businesses are rewarded for innovation. Policy instruments, such as tax rebates, waste collection fees and subsidies, could be used to incentivize changes in business practice and consumer behavior.
Secondly, better data on the cost of food waste and on the economic, environmental, and social benefits of limiting food waste could help sway investors and consumers.
“Previous global estimates of food waste have significantly underestimated its scale,” said Dechen Tsering, Regional Director of UNEP in Asia and the Pacific. “This is due to the current level of data availability being low and measurement approaches being highly variable,” she explains, referring to the key findings of the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021.
Finally, more efforts are needed to raise consumer awareness and engage with stakeholders to drive demand for green tech solutions.
To help cities tackle these challenges, UNEP initiated a project named Build Back Better: Using Green and Digital Technologies to Reduce Food Waste at the Consumer Level. Bangkok is one of five cities to join the project and piloted an integrated approach to connect data, policy, technology and consumer behavior for addressing food waste.