How Much Food Waste is There in Singapore? I Went Dumpster Diving to Find Out
These days, it’s not just bag ladies and homeless old folks who are rooting through the dumpsters and eating other people’s leftover fries at McDonald’s.
Nope, it might very well turn out to be an Instagram-savvy 20-something, because the unthinkable has happened in ultra-hygienic Singapore: Dumpster diving is going mainstream. Lock up your kids!
Much of the mainstream-isation can be linked to Singapore’s number one “freeganfluencer”, Daniel Tay, who regularly speaks to the media on his lifestyle (you can find his blog here and Quora profile here).
There have also been news reports of group dumpster dives (organised by Tay), where smiling, apple-cheeked millennials show off their veggie hauls.
Such human interest stories are very well and good, but what I really wanted to know is: Just how much food waste is out there? And where can I get my hands on some!?
So I tried dumpster diving for a week to find out.
DAY 1: Rescuing fruit from the dumpster
I lucked out with my very first dumpster haul. I was hanging around a hawker centre after work and happened to see a garbage man dumping a styrofoam box of fruit into a big dumpster.
Seeing my chance, I hurried over and started pestering him for the melon he was about to dump in the bin. He scowled and said, “Take lah. Take everything!” Then he thrust the entire box of fruit in my arms before wheeling the dumpster away.
So there I was, kneeling on the side of the road, rummaging through a box of refuse like a raccoon. I was expecting smashed-up or rotten stuff, but, surprisingly, the fruit was all whole and mostly intact. Sure, there were a couple of bruises here and there, but they weren’t mushy or anything.
This is what I saved:
Here’s what it looks like all cut up.
Everything tasted great and I didn’t die! An auspicious beginning.
DAY 2: “Please sir, I want your trash”
The exact legal status of dumpster diving depends on who you ask. But in general, it’s safe to say that dumpster diving is not exactly legal in Singapore.
It can be construed as committing theft against the NEA, the “rightful” owner of all rubbish. Separately, you can also be fined up to $5,000 for “raking or grubbing” through refuse bins, bin centres and vehicles, even if you don’t take anything.
So in many of the articles I read on freeganism in Singapore, readers are encouraged to approach food sellers directly rather than look through their rubbish.
I tried asking a butcher whom I spied packing things up while the rest of the wet market was already closed.
At first he said no, which is fine and totally expected. But as I was walking away, he seemed to change his mind and asked me to come back and wait.
Mr Butcher proceeded to methodically unpack the entirety of his meat freezer, and finally produced three massive frozen hae chor from the bottom.
… I stunned leh. I thought maybe he’d give me, like, a packet of gizzards or something. This was just too good. I tried to clarify if he really want going to throw it out, and he said no, he simply wants to give it to me. And then he advised me to make it last by eating just a little each time, before shooing me away (kindly).
I was moved – but I also felt like a huge fraud. I think the butcher thought I was some street urchin (a very well-fed one?) and took pity on me.
Which really wasn’t the point. I wanted his food waste, not this luxurious gift of perfectly saleable meat. So I guess the problem with asking is that you don’t know for sure if it’s “real” food waste.
DAY 3: Supermarket dumpster diving
Determined not to make the hae chor mistake, I decided to go straight to a dumpster this time. I chose the back of a nearby supermarket, which seemed the most likely to contain items in edible condition.
This, my friends, is the freegan jackpot:
I took my time picking out the items I wanted. Looks like any other supermarket haul, doesn’t it?
You might be able to identify the supermarket who threw these out, but I’m not trying to single them out. All supermarkets throw out a lot of food. You can also see that some of the items were already reduced to clear, but there were still no takers. At some point they just have to be binned, right?
DAY 4: Second supermarket attempt
Thrilled by my dumpster diving success, I now made a point to check out the back of other supermarkets whenever I passed by.
This is the bin behind a minor neighbourhood supermarket (the kind that’s a bit bigger than a minimart), which gives you an idea of the amount of vegetable/fruit waste that’s thrown out throughout the day, even by a small operator:
I already had a lot of veggies from the previous dive, but I couldn’t resist picking up this broccoli in near-perfect condition. It just had a blemish on the top of its head.
This supermarket seems to separate their food waste into two bins: The “good” dumpster and the “bad” one. The one above is the good one, with all the veggies etc. in salvageable condition.
The bad dumpster looks like this:
It contains inedible waste and paper-wrapped packets of stuff that smells like hell – spoilt meat or fish probably. I don’t know if this separation is done on purpose but I really appreciate it.
DAY 5: Dumpster diving for bread
The amount of bread bakeries throw out in Singapore is well-documented, so hitting up the back of a bakery was next on my to-do list.
It was a veritable bread bonanza.
It was also at this bin that I met a fellow dumpster diver for the first time.
While I was trying to pry that one egg loose, a woman rushed up and immediately started stuffing a very large bag with the practised efficiency of a regular. She didn’t respond to my attempts to make friendly small talk – she just instructed me to close the bin and ran off without another word. So much for camaraderie.
On a quest for more gluten, I looked in the bin behind an expensive bakery too. The trash was bagged up, but there was a big tear in the garbage bag (a sign of other divers), through which I could reach and salvage this paper bag full of crusty bread.
Stale but still edible.
DAY 6: An unexpected veggie bounty
I started to get “dumpster fatigue” towards the end of the week. It turns out that I did not find looking through dank, smelly bins an enjoyable activity in itself – I’m purely in it just for the free food.
I’ve also been too lazy to cook and bring food every single day, so today I had lunch at a hawker centre, spending $4 on a bowl of yong tau foo. (Even now that I can get food for free, I still think hawker food is a steal considering the amount of labour that goes into food preparation.)
As I was leaving through the wet market side of the food centre, I came across a vegetable seller packing up unsold produce for the day.
She was getting ready to wheel her trolley of limp veggies away so I asked if I could have anything. She nodded and gave me a plastic bag and pointed at her refuse pile, seeming puzzled but happy for me to take an entire bag of kang kong, a bitter gourd, and a chili.
This was literally the tip of the iceberg though, about a tenth of what was in the trolley.
DAY 7: Not every day is lucky
I’ve picked up loads of food waste throughout the week, but on the final day of my freegan week, I just couldn’t find any in useable condition.
I combed the bins at a nearby neighbourhood centre twice, once in the morning at once in the evening, and both times I walked away empty-handed.
It’s not that the food waste doesn’t exist, but more likely the businesses here carefully bag up their trash and tie the bags up tight to deter people like me from freeloading off their waste.
It kinda sucks that I don’t have a final haul to show off, but I expect that’s also true for real life dumpster diving – you just can’t predict what you’re going to get.
That’s perfectly fine for privileged, recreational dumpster divers like me, because we can just go pay for a meal, but for people who sift through rubbish to make ends meet, it also means food security is a constant worry.
How much food waste did I save?
In total, I rescued, salvaged, or otherwise received an estimated $60 worth of bread, meat, fruit and vegetables in a week.
That’s pretty significant because I really only skimmed the surface (literally) and I was taking enough for just myself plus a little extra for my husband. There’s a lot more that I couldn’t consume – hundreds of dollars worth of produce – that probably just went straight to the incinerator.
And it’s all post-retail waste, which completely discounts the enormous amount of food waste that DIDN’T even make it to the supermarket or market.
Will I continue dumpster diving?
Yes. Beyond finding a use for all that food waste, I think dumpster diving really does have some tangible benefits.
The most obvious one is the savings aspect. Because I had so much food to cook and bring to work all week, I spent only about $16.50 on food all week (no, I didn’t go full Daniel Tay by eating leftovers from the tray return trolley). I usually spend more like $60 to $80 a week on food, so it’s reduced about 75% of my expenditure.
The whole freegan thing also dovetails nicely with a healthy lifestyle. Even though I’ve literally been eating trash, it’s fruit and vegetable trash, and I cook it myself. It’s not exactly a party in my mouth but my body does feel good eating this stuff.
Even with my extremely limited culinary skills, I was able to put together some serviceable meals from food waste:
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t get food poisoning or diarrhea even once. But that’s probably an indication of how much bacteria is already in my gut than anything else.
Appendix: A bunch of useful freegan resources
I’ll be the first to admit that dumpster diving does have its limitations. It’s also not for everyone.
So I’m going to present some options here for those who want to try reducing food waste, but don’t want to jump into the nearest trash bin.
First, you can get much better produce in a much less rabak manner by going on a hyper-organised and -efficient “food rescue mission” with SG Food Rescue. This is Daniel Tay’s regular event where you form teams to ask for unwanted produce from sellers, and later take home whatever you like for personal consumption.
You probably also need other things in your pantry to eat, like rice, noodles, biscuits, condiments, spices, snacks, etc. The best way I could find to get these for free is via the SG Food Rescue Facebook group, which full of people giving away expired or unwanted food from their personal pantries.
If you’re looking for free cooked food in particular, there’s the similarly-named Food Rescue Singapore. They run a Telegram chat group (link found on the Facebook page) where you can get notified of corporate buffet leftovers and the like. You just need to show up with your own takeaway containers.
It’s not just food that people give away for free too. There’s also an active “blessing” culture on Carousell (search “free to bless”) where people give away unwanted items from their decluttering sprees. (Thanks, Marie Kondo!) Other platforms are Freecycle groups on Facebook and the Freegood app.
What did you think of the food waste I found? Tell us in the comments.