Food Waste Time Bomb

Often overlooked, food waste is a time bomb ready to explode at any moment.
Photo & Text:
Reno Surya & Fully Syafi
Sunday, 16 October 2022

The sun in the west is slowly slipping away. It was getting dark. The noise of the party in a luxurious hall at the Doubletree Hotel, Surabaya, slowly dies down. The guests withdraw. Leaving a pile of food waste that looked almost untouched on the table.

The food was all still fit for consumption. However, if not processed immediately, they will end up tragically: becoming garbage.

A Doubletree Hotel manager immediately called Garda Pangan, an organization that works to distribute surplus food. The team from the organization, which was established in 2017, rushed to the hotel, picked up and distributed the leftover food to the underprivileged. On Sunday, early September, they targeted refugees from the sectarian conflict in Sampang, Madura, who live in Jemundo Flat, Sidoarjo.

“If the amount is like this, it’s still enough for about a hundred people, Mas,” said a waiter to the Iklimku reporter.

The sight of the mountains of food waste is almost a common sight for hotel staff. “In fact, what’s rare is when the food runs out. It’s just right. Rarely, anyway,” he continued.

Weighing food in a car during the 'food rescue' process of a hotel in Surabaya. Food rescue is an effort to save surplus food produced by the industry from potential waste. The surplus food will be quality-checked, repackaged, and distributed to the underprivileged.
Volunteers from Garda Pangan collected and weighed bread and cakes worthy of consumption from the cooler of a hotel in Surabaya. This leftover hotel food was collected by volunteers to be donated to underprivileged families in Surabaya.
Volunteers from Garda Pangan collected and weighed bread and cakes worthy of consumption from the cooler of a hotel in Surabaya. This leftover hotel food was collected by volunteers to be donated to underprivileged families in Surabaya.

Indonesia does have a problem with food waste. According to a report titled Fixing Food: Toward a More Sustainable Food System in The Economist in 2011, Indonesia ranked second in the world as the country most diligent in accumulating food waste.

In the same year, each Indonesian citizen, on average, threw away about 300 kg per year. In fact, when compared to data from the website, the amount of waste if managed properly can meet the needs of more than three billion hungry stomachs of adult humans in the world.

The concentration of the government and public awareness regarding food waste management can still be said to be minimal. This is evidenced by the data from the National Waste Management Information System (SIPSN) which notes that in 2021, food waste will top the list of waste polluting Indonesia. Plastic waste, which is echoed as the number one destroyer of nature, is ranked second by contributing 26.27 tons of waste. Meanwhile, food waste tops the list, with almost twice the amount of plastic waste, at 46.35 million tons.

Like plastic waste, the threat of the impact of food waste is also so serious. This is because the generation of hundreds of thousands of tons of food waste produces methane gas (CH4) as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

According to data from the World Resources Institute (WRI), food waste contributes 8 percent of global emissions. Meanwhile, the CH4 content is also dangerous. It has the potential to be 25 times more toxic than carbon dioxide. At the same time, methane gas is one of the emissions that trigger an increase in global warming.

Not only dangerous for human lungs, methane gas, if it does not get enough oxygen supply and is stockpiled for a long time, can turn into a time bomb.

Time bomb is not a mere metaphor. The incident a decade and a half ago is proof. The deadly incident that claimed hundreds of human lives in Leuwigajah, Cimahi, West Java on February 21, 2005. The event is then annually commemorated as National Waste Awareness Day.

At that time, a mountain of garbage in a landfill exploded. The mountain, which was almost as high as a skyscraper, then collapsed and buried hundreds of scavengers who were making a living. Their houses were buried under the garbage. More than 140 people were unable to save their lives.

News of the Leuwigajah tragedy made headlines on news portals. Minanto, a scavenger in Surabaya, still remembers the incident bitterly. He did not dare to work for days. The 58-year-old man was afraid that the mountains of garbage at the Benowo landfill in Surabaya would also explode.

“The news [of the Leuwigajah incident] was spread in the newspapers and on the radio. Well, if it could explode there, it could also happen here in [Benowo], right? Here the garbage mountain is higher, right?” said Minanto.

“At that time, I just found out that garbage can explode. So it was a strange thought,” he continued.

The distance between Minanto’s house and the mountain of waste at Benowo landfill is less than 4km. There was a feeling of dread when he saw the pile, which was many times the height of the roof of his house.

“Then I fought that fear, because there are children and wife who need to eat, need money to fulfill their daily needs,” he said.

The Leuwigajah incident gave Minanto new knowledge. He reflected that waste not only threatens his lungs, which are often suffocated by inhaling incinerator fumes. Waste also contains methane, can explode, and devastate its surroundings.

As a scavenger, Minanto chooses to stay away from food waste piles. According to him, there is no economic potential to be generated. The soil in the food waste area tends to be mushy. The smell is also more pungent.

“You can’t even process it. The price is also not there. So, what for?” he said.

Cleaning workers collect vegetable and fruit waste discarded by Mangga Dua market traders, Surabaya. Fruit and vegetable traders always sort the condition of the fruit and vegetables and discard them due to the imperfect condition of the merchandise. Every day 10 to 14 tons of vegetable and fruit waste is generated by one of the largest markets in Surabaya.

Small tactics

Unlike Minanto, Hasto Wibowo (52) focuses on picking up vegetables and fruits at major markets in Surabaya. He would set off in the early morning to Keputran Market, waiting around the garbage trucks to pick up vegetables and fruits to take home.

Hasto is not alone. There are others in the same profession who have been waiting for the market’s leftover goods to be reprocessed. “Some of these items are rotten, sometimes only on the outside. Those that are not fit to eat can be sorted, peeled and discarded. The rest can be used for cooking and animal feed. It’s not bad for extra income,” Hasto explained.

Every day he brings home several baskets full of mostly vegetables and fruits. Some are pale in color, but when he peels them, they still look fresh and fit to eat.

Hasto demonstrates the sorting and processing process. He took a penknife from his pocket, gently peeled an almost brownish-red tomato, cut off the black part and discarded it before chewing on it.

“Well, it’s still edible, right? It’s not dead, is it?” Hasto jokes to the laughter of his friends.

Recycling basic food ingredients, as Hasto does, is one of the best ways to manage food waste. Food waste is not only about wasting ready-to-eat food products in the trash. Basic food ingredients that do not sell well in the market can also be categorized as food waste.

In Surabaya’s Keputran Market, for example, according to Budiono, the market’s cleaning coordinator, every day there are at least seven to eight tons of vegetables and fruits that end up in the landfill.

“The majority of vegetables that are quickly thrown away are vegetables. Because if the appearance is not attractive, buyers are not interested. Having friends like Mr. Hasto like this helps. Instead of being wasted, let’s process it,” Budiono told Iklimku.

GHG emissions from food waste in the last two decades reached 1,702.9 Megatons CO2-equivalent. The combined figure of food waste and food loss accounts for about 7.29 percent of the average annual GHG emissions. If referring to the data, in Indonesia every year there are around 250 thousand tons of basic food ingredients that are wasted.

The work of Hasto and his fellow professionals is a small tactic to reduce the possibility of the food waste mountain rising even higher.

A resident collects vegetable waste that is still suitable for consumption at the Keputran market TPS, Surabaya. The 'imperfect' vegetables are collected by residents for their own consumption and used as animal feed.
A pile of 'imperfect' vegetable waste at Keputran market in Surabaya. This behavior of throwing away 'imperfect' vegetables will become waste and become a serious problem for the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.


Sunday, September 4, 2022, Surabaya’s sky was bright. Under the sun that burned their skin, a group of people in green vests deftly picked up the leftover party food. Hotel employees came out of the back door with boxes of food in their hands.

Immediately, the Garda Pangan team received them and brought them to their headquarters in Semolowaru to be warmed up. So that, when the food arrives in the hands of residents, the deliciousness is still maintained.

That day, the Garda Pangan team visited a flat in the Puspa Agro area, Sidoarjo. The flat is a shelter for victims of the sectarian conflict in Sampang, Madura. Some of the victims decided to return home to Sampang at the beginning of last year, but others are still in the flat and waiting for the right time to return to their hometown.

In the middle of the hallway, people lined up. The Garda Pangan team distributed a variety of food. The happy faces could not be hidden by the residents who received the assistance. A resident said that this kind of assistance from Garda Pangan helped him to save money. Because, while being refugees, not all residents can access formal work. Most of them work odd jobs. The majority of the refugees work as crafters of various kinds of coconut fiber crafts.

“I was happy when Garda Pangan came here. So I can also save money, and I can also get a lot of food. One of them is my favorite food, fried chicken!” said Amama, a 36-year-old woman, one of the residents of the flat.

Living in one room with relatives who share the same fate, residents of Puspa Agro Flats have a culture of sharing food. Usually, if they have excess food stocks, residents are accustomed to sharing with neighbors.

Meanwhile, the leftover rice is dried to make karak, the basic ingredient of rengginang crackers. This classic but ingenious tactic has been practiced by the people of Puspa Agro Flat for many years.

A volunteer and a resident carry food distributed by Garda Pangan volunteers in Surabaya. Distributing food from 'food rescue' to residents is an effort to reduce the high level of food waste generated by households and retailers.
Volunteers distribute food from the 'food rescue' to residents in Surabaya. This food rescue is an effort to reduce the high amount of food waste generated by households and retailers.

Food solidarity between neighbors is the right solution to overcome the high trend of food waste that continues to climb. According to the United Nation Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Food Waste Index Report 2021 in 2021, out of 931 million tons of food waste, 61 percent comes from households.

Waste generation from household activities is difficult to control. This is because the amount of daily production is not so obvious, and channels to manage it, such as food banks, or simple composters, are still lacking in availability. At the same time, education about managing food waste is not so massive. That’s what makes the household sector a significant producer of food waste.

Referring to data from the National Food Agency (Bapanas), within two decades, the total loss due to food waste is equivalent to IDR 213 to 551 trillion per year. If food waste can be properly distributed, this figure can feed the hungry stomachs of 61 million – 125 million Indonesians.

Puspa Agro Flats is not the only target of Garda Pangan’s donation. The organization initiated by Eva Bachtiar has pocketed around 200 villages, the majority of which are low-income communities (MBR) in Surabaya.

Before distributing food, the Garda Pangan team will first record the needs of the village residents. They want to make sure that the village they will make a donation point is really in need.

“So that food donations are truly accessed by underprivileged communities. In addition, there are also adjustments related to technical matters, such as mapping the demographics of the village. If there are many Muslims, we can’t bring non-halal food. Or if there are more parents, reduce food containing milk, and so on,” explained Eva when met by the Iklimku reporter at Garda Pangan headquarters in Semolowaru, Surabaya.

A number of citrus fruits categorized as 'ugly produce' are scattered on a plantation in Batu district, East Java. The condition of the fruit means that farmers are forced to discard crops that do not look "pretty".
Garda Pangan volunteers collect Baby Java oranges during the food gleaning process at a citrus kebin in Malang Regency. Food gleaning is collecting crop residues that farmers intentionally leave on the land, which are actually still very edible, to reduce the potential for food waste.

A similar movement is also being carried out by Aliansi Zero Waste in Solo. Titik Sasanti, Director of Aliansi Zero Waste, is promoting a program in collaboration with the Solo City Government regarding food waste education. Titik’s heart is moved because she is worried to see that the food waste trend matrix continues to climb every year.

“First of all, educating the public. We created the ‘Don’t Destroy the Earth from Your Plate’ program, which aims to flick people’s awareness regarding their daily food waste,” explained Titik.

Like Garda Pangan, the Zero Waste Alliance team also works with hotels, restaurants, and cafes to help them distribute leftover products that are about to go out of production to other urban poor communities.

“Of course, with strict sorting and processing according to our criteria to ensure the feasibility of re-consumption,” added Titik.

Both Eva and Titik agree that the presence of the state is needed to make the steep road of overcoming food waste easier to traverse. However, time and time again, efforts to hear from the state end up as discourse instead of real programs.

Eva said she is working to push for the publication of a policy brief on food waste. The aim is to curb the constant upward trend of food waste while encouraging surplus food donations. She hopes that there will be legal regulations regarding how food businesses can distribute their products that are still suitable for consumption to underprivileged people.

“Because the expiration date on products circulating in Indonesia is a consumption deadline recommendation. It is not really not consumable. Instead of being thrown away, it can be distributed to people in need,” said Eva.

The rule of law that Eva is aspiring to is to give consequences to food businesses. Rewarding those who are responsible for the waste produced by their products, and punishing those who are negligent.

The regulation is expected to be able to make producers not arbitrarily eliminate their products that fail to sell in the market. At the same time, it provides clear rules so that food producers do not hesitate to donate their leftover products to citizens.

“Corporations are often afraid to donate their leftover products, because they don’t want their story to be tarnished because their products are toxic. In fact, as long as it is handled properly, the problem can be solved easily if the rules are clear,” Eva concluded.

The road to food waste reduction is still long and steep. If the state does not take a deft stance to reduce waste generation, then mountains of waste are time bombs, which keep slipping and ready to explode at unexpected times.

This article won second place in the Journalist Competition 2023 – Zero Waste Indonesia Alliance

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