SINGAPORE: The circuit breaker, implemented from April to June in Singapore, was designed to disrupt the spread of COVID-19.
It also severely disrupted the food and beverage (F&B) sector, forcing restaurants that were still in operation to focus on home delivery.
In the first eight weeks of this period, 1,334 tonnes of disposable cutlery and packaging – the weight of 92 double-decker buses – was produced by the sector, according to a Jun 5 study by National University of Singapore alumni.
This was in addition to the 271 million plastic items that Singaporeans would normally use in an eight-week period, according to figures from a 2018 Singapore Environment Council study.
Extraordinary times have led to extraordinary but unsustainable solutions for food vendors. Apart from the obvious and visible problem with plastic packaging, what does “sustainability” in the food services sector look like?
As with all businesses, the sustainability factor can be measured by the inputs, the outputs and the energy consumed. For the F&B sector, the inputs should ideally consist of sustainably produced food items prepared with a minimal carbon footprint.
This would focus on locally-sourced plant-based products since meat production involves heavy use of water and the expulsion of methane, not to mention heavy transportation burdens.
Clean energy (electricity from renewable sources such as solar panels) should be used for cooking, the outputs should be sustainably packaged and delivered, and all waste should be composted.
In essence, that means restaurants that produce plant-based, clean-energy crafted, locally sourced, plastic-free meals.
But ticking all these boxes is easier said than done. 90 per cent of Singapore’s food is imported and only 1 per cent of its electricity is derived from solar sources.
Yet customers would like their favourite eateries and bars to go green, according to surveys. Reducing plastic waste is not only a low-hanging fruit, but makes good business sense.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
Local bar and restaurant operator, Tadcaster Hospitality, has shown that some simple changes can create significant reductions in plastic use.
As the owner of central business district pubs such as Molly Malones and The Exchange as well as eateries such as Café Melba and Dharmas Kebab Shop, Tadcaster’s management was concerned about the amount of single-use plastic it was generating through take-out food and drinks. In an average year, the volume was enough to fill an average condominium swimming pool.
In 2019, Adrian Houghton, director of Tadcaster, set about changing its outlets to become more sustainable. He implemented recycling systems for the 150,000 bottles that were normally put in the garbage every year.
READ: Commentary: The enormous growth of plastic packaging as take-outs and food deliveries surge must stop
WATCH: Reducing single-use plastics: F&B outlets offer customers compostable or reusable options | Video
Through finding biodegradable and compostable alternatives, Houghton was able to save the company’s annual disposal of 60,000 plastic cups and lids, 60,000 plastic straws, 21,300 plastic takeaway boxes, 10,300 plastic bag, 9,500 plastic drink stirrers and 6,300 plastic cutlery items. That’s the equivalent of what’s disposed by 167,400 Singapore residents in one day.
There was no net cost to Tadcaster for the change to biodegradable alternatives. Houghton reported that nearly all customers welcomed the change and in some cases it actually brought in extra business.
On one occasion, an office group of 18 drinking in a nearby bar moved to The Exchange after seeing its plastic-free promotion. They had asked other bars not to provide plastic straws, only to find one in each glass when their orders came. (Of course this was prior to COVID-19 restrictions limiting group sizes to five.)
CONSUMERS WANT LESS PLASTIC TOO
As Tadcaster’s management noticed, most consumers in Singapore are in favour of more sustainable F&B options.
A December 2019 survey of 29,000 global consumers from UK research firm GlobalData has shown how embedded the sustainability culture has become in Singapore.
For instance, 74 per cent of Singaporeans find a low carbon footprint in food and drink appealing – about 14 percentage points higher than the global average.
When it comes to menu options, 27 per cent of Singaporeans are likely to prefer a low-meat diet, 4 percentage points higher than average.
Singapore respondents are 60 per cent more likely than their ASEAN counterparts to find tap water appealing or very appealing.
For takeaway orders, nearly 30 per cent of Singapore respondents indicated that they were willing to make the change to plastic-free for environmental reasons. And the stronger the economic incentive in the nudge, the greater the change.
87 per cent of Singaporeans indicated that they would reduce or stop purchasing items that had a plastic tax surcharge – against a global average of 78 per cent. Similarly, 39 per cent of Singaporeans said they would bring their own refillable cups to food outlets if given a discount.
READ: Commentary: Forget bamboo straws. Let’s name the elephants in the room of Singapore’s climate debate
Food service providers have been experimenting with discounts for customers who bring their own containers.
Saladstop, a quick-service salad restaurant, claims in its 2019 sustainability report that it saved 60,000 plastic bags by putting a 10 cent surcharge on them, and a further 680kg of plastic waste through encouraging customer to bring their own bowls.
The growing popularity of this trend saw the Bring Your Own (BYO) Singapore movement grow from 430 retail outlets in 2017 to 1,120 outlets from 126 brands in February 2020.
These outlets are committed to encouraging customers to choose reusables over single-use plastics through incentives and education.
GOING GREEN AMID THE PANDEMIC
During the onset of COVID-19, global chains such as Starbucks cancelled their BYO policy in some outlets due to concerns about possible contamination from handling customers’ own cups.
However, a Jun 22 statement signed by more than 100 scientists worldwide said that reusable containers do not bring increased risks of coronavirus transmission.
This is the right message at the right time, as the pandemic threatens to undo efforts to cut plastic waste. Yet people do seem open to supporting F&B businesses serious about going green.
In July 2020, GlobalData polled 5,800 respondents on issues that have become more important to them as a result of COVID-19. 84 per cent said plastic-free packaging, while 87 per cent said that reducing or recycling food waste was as important, if not more important to them since the pandemic.
This increased appetite for social issues may be because of the extra time spent reading and watching news stories during lockdown.
The customer has woken up to the environmental impact of consumption habits of the past and wants change. Food service operators certainly have enough on their plates coping with the fallout from COVID-19 right now.
But as they grapple with the post-COVID normal of less dining in and more food deliveries, it makes sense to switch to a sustainable menu.
Tim Hill is a Key Accounts Director for GlobalData PLC, a provider of intelligence on the world’s largest industries.
Editor's Note: This commentary has been edited to correct the source for statistics on plastic use. It is the Singapore Environment Council, and not the National Environment Agency. We apologise for the error.