In 2019, more than 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste was landfilled. If food waste was a country, if would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the USA and China. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 6.4 million tonnes of municipal solid waste was dumped in landfills in 2018. If we estimate that 30 percent of this waste was food waste, it means that 1.92 million tonnes of food waste was landfilled. With 9.631 million people in the UAE, this amounts to about 199 kg of food waste per person per year.
So, what is the UAE currently doing about food waste, and what future solutions might we consider, to deal with this challenge?
In the UAE, two emirates, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, have established food banks to tackle the redistribution of food that is still edible; for sources like supermarkets to be able to send their dairy, fruits and vegetables to a food bank. The food has to be approved by food inspectors to ensure the food is still fit for human consumption. Following this inspection, the food is handed over to charities that distribute the food to those who need it. The tonnage of food waste diverted from landfills to the food banks is less than one percent at the moment, but it is a start.
Hotels are also contributing to diverting food waste from landfills by segregating their food waste. In Ras Al Khaimah, hotels are required by law to sort their food waste from recyclables and general waste. This was a joint effort between RAK Waste Management Agency and RAK Tourism Authority. Guidelines were developed by staff from both agencies and hotel staff were trained accordingly. One requirement is oversight by a Recycling Champion at each hotel who manages the segregation efforts and records the data for their hotel. To keep the Green Hotel Programme running smoothly, joint inspections are carried out by RAK Tourism Authority and RAK Waste Management Agency who administer fines when necessary. An annual Green Hotel awards ceremony is also held to recognize the top hotel recyclers.
The green building code for Ras Al Khaimah, BARJEEL, went into effect in January 2020. This code has a requirement that any establishment generating over 100 kg of food per day must provide a plan for managing their food waste when they apply for their building permit. Four and five star hotels, malls and shopping centres with food courts and healthcare facilities that serve food must provide a technical and economic evaluation for on-site organic waste management equipment such as a composter, digester or macerator. The evaluation has to include the following:
• Estimate the organic waste generation (in kg/day) based on local and international waste generation rates and analyse the estimated cost for organic waste disposal.
• Simple payback time calculation. The evaluated on-site organic waste management option must be implemented if the payback time is less than seven years.
• Obtain quotes for organic waste management equipment.
• Calculate the payback time and summarise the findings in a report.
For instance, the Rixos Hotel in Ras Al Khaimah, which had over two tonnes of food waste per day in 2018, has implemented an on-site food waste digester system using ORCA machines as this option is less expensive than landfills.
However, for other hotels with less than two tonnes of food waste per day, the gate fee had to be 70 AED per ton to make food waste equipment cost effective as compared to hauling to a landfill. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in reduction of food waste at hotels. The Ras Al Khaimah Waldorf Astoria, which weighs their food waste, is reporting a reduction of about 20 percent in food waste. This in part is due to the reduction in lower occupancy rates, but also from the discontinuation of hotel buffets for guests and staff. If this becomes the new normal, it will surely reduce food waste in a significant way.
Unlike large hotels, residential source separation has not reached the same level of success yet. In Ras al Khaimah, residents were initially enthusiastic about a new system for separating their waste. The bag in the bin programme designated green bags for recyclables which was popular among residents. However, brown bags designated for food waste were not as popular. Community food hubs were established in five locations so residents could see their food waste being digested or composted. After several months of quality checks, residents were still unable to segregate their waste properly and the programme was cancelled in 2020. It was cancelled due to the residents’ lack of understanding of the programme. Residents needed constant outreach to change their habits. The bags were distributed at no cost to them, and thus were used for purposes other than recycling. If the programme were to be reinstated, a charge for the bags would need to be explored as well as extensive ongoing communications programme in English and Arabic.
After evaluating what has been done in the UAE regarding food waste, what can we learn from other countries that have taken significant steps to tackle their food waste? South Korea is one such example*. In a traditional South Korean meal, there are several side dishes called banchan that are often left unfinished, contributing to one of the world’s highest rates of food wastage. South Koreans each generate more than 130 kg of food waste per person each year.
Yet, South Korea currently recycles more than 95 percent of its food waste, up from less than two percent in 1995. How did they get to this point? Simply by implementing and enforcing two major laws: a) In 2005 they passed a law prohibiting food waste from being landfilled; b) In 2013, the government required residents to implement food waste recycling using biodegradable bags. An average four-person family pays $6 a month for the bags.
Technology has also helped lead South Korea to manage food waste. In Seoul, 6,000 automated bins equipped with weighing scales and radio frequency identification (RFID), weigh food waste as it is loaded and charge residents using an ID card. The pay-as-you-recycle machines have reduced food waste in Seoul by 47,000 tonnes in just six years. South Korea makes it a priority to remind their citizens of the importance of recycling and how to manage their food waste at home. They encourage residents to wring out their food waste before taking it to the neighborhood compost machine.
This is to reduce the water weight of the food since food waste is about 60 percent water. This helps the residents pay less for their food waste composting and the government also pays less to haul the food waste. In the UAE, we need to adopt new food waste regulations, effectively communicate these regulations and most importantly enforce these regulations. In this country, nothing is impossible, we are surely up to the challenge of eliminating food waste.
*Source: World Economic Forum https://www.weforum. org/agenda/2019/04/south-korea-recycling-food-waste/
The author has over 30 years of experience in all aspects of waste management. She is a registered civil engineer in the State of California and has lived and worked in the UAE since 2010.