The Backstory of Operation Zero Waste Dabao

The following is the Backstory of the original project, which was to take place in one food court or hawker centre. However, Operation Zero Waste Dabao has now expanded to include not only one food court, but 16 other F&B outlets across the island!

Humble food courts and hawker centres are to me the life and soul of Singapore. I associate my fondest memories with them: buying ban mian from the auntie who watched me grow up, and proudly bringing in overseas visitors for a bite of everything all in one bustling place. They represent the ultimate meeting point of cultures and classes. A Halal stall might be nestled next to a Teochew stall. Neighbourhood hawker food is affordable enough for lower-income Singaporeans, and nostalgic enough that higher-income individuals keep coming back. These are the places where it is wonderfully common to find an expat kid expertly placing orders in Tamil! As such, the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) recognizes that “as a platform through which large crowds of people from various linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds transit every day, Singapore food courts have big potential in terms of raising awareness on environmental issues and sustainability”.

According to the SEC report, “food courts are the main generators of waste in Singapore.” Moreover, my correspondence with the National Environment Agency (NEA) confirmed that “disposable foodware that is contaminated with food/liquid waste is not recycled. […] Being a small island city, Singapore faces limitation on land use. Currently, all waste – biodegradable or not – that is not recyclable and non-hazardous, is incinerated at waste-to-energy plants before being sent to Semakau Landfill.”

Singapore has a sophisticated waste-to-energy incineration system that does indeed leverage cleantech solutions, but this does not preclude the fact that continued use of packaging materials for takeaway orders (called dabao or “打包” in several Chinese dialects) that rely on petroleum, like polystyrene foam, supports production processes that are environmentally harmful. Studies show that producing plastics made from bio-composites, such as agricultural by-product fibres, is less harmful to the environment, in particular because it avoids using fossil fuel feedstocks. Switching to bio-composite packaging is a starting point for making our production and consumption choices more sustainable.

The environmental advantages of using alternative materials are compelling, but what really drives me is the potential to take a meaningful sociocultural and political stance at the grassroots level. In 2007, the Singapore Packaging Agreement was initiated to encourage industry players to reduce packaging waste. Though the 135 industry signatories have achieved commendable reductions, it must be noted that the majority are larger companies with dedicated manpower and funds for corporate social responsibility programmes. The SEC also began a Green Label Food Court scheme, with the aim of certifying 10% of all food courts by 2011, but the scheme has unfortunately only been able to successfully certify about three food courts to date.

Youth and environmentalist communities have voiced displeasure at the environmentally-unsound materials we continue to support. Some individual stall owners are trying to make changes on their own, but are unsupported and have not amassed enough strength in numbers to effect real change. Meanwhile, other stall owners and members of the public remain unaware of the implications of their consumption choices, or feel disempowered to take action.

This project is to “green” our food courts and hawker centres by forming the essential missing links between community groups: vendors, customers, the public at large, bio-composite foodware manufacturers, food court management boards, environmental activist networks, youth groups, and governmental agencies. I hope to bring together the various stakeholder groups in an effort to promote the use of agri-waste bio-composite foodware in these special community spaces that are such an integral and visible part of Singapore’s identity.

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