Blog Post

Diving In... to the World of Food Waste

Waiting to be removed. Two trash bins on the side of Roosevelt Road Section 3 overflow with garbage. By morning, Taipei city government waste-collection vehicles will have whisked them away. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

The phone call came as a surprise. I didn’t expect anyone to have my phone number, let alone call me. It was my eighth day in Taiwan, sixth day with a SIM card, and second time at a Louisa Coffee. I didn’t even have my cell memorized – something with a 0935… 74? The order of the nine digits evaded me.

For a second I contemplated letting the call go to voicemail. It was an unfamiliar line after all, and it’s what I would have normally done in the States. I quickly shook the thought out of my head. I was in a foreign place– I had to be open to every and all opportunities.

“喂 (Wei),” I answered, in the traditional fashion. “喂, 您好, 是莉莉小姐嗎? (Wei, Nin Hao, Shi Lilly Xiaojie ma)?" “对, 是我 (Dui, shi wo)."

So far so good – I knew my name and how to confirm that it was indeed me speaking on the line. The next part was a little tricky.

The gentleman on the other end of the line had a brisk voice and spoke quickly in Mandarin. My automatic response thus far had been to say “对,” “mhhmm,” “ohhhh,” and “okay” to everything, including situations where my comprehension level was zero. With my limited vocabulary, I didn’t want to ruin a potential interaction with a Taiwanese or lose out on the opportunity to practice, but that often meant agreeing to things I had no idea what I was agreeing to.

The credentials. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

This time though, luck was on my side. The power of context clues and my limited environmental vocabulary scored me an invitation to an international food waste management forum. This was it! My first insider’s perspective on the waste management system here in Taiwan – my three Mandarin lessons were already paying off!

I showed up the next day with my camera and a suit to what I thought was a series of presentations at a restaurant. The address provided to me referred to “Taipei (台北) something something fandian (飯店),” which, given my experience studying Mandarin on the mainland, meant “Taipei something something restaurant,” so as I stepped off the subway, I kept my eyes peeled for a room with 15-20 white-clothed lazy susan tables on the second or third floor of a building.

When I arrived at the venue, however, I quickly realized that there were some pretty stark differences between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese Mandarin – fandian in Taiwan referred to a hotel, and in my case, a very, very fancy hotel.

Not What I Expected The Taipei Regents Hotel boasted three elegant levels – accessed on an elevated cobblestoned drive that snaked its way past a fountain to the main entrance, where “Chanel” and Gucci” flashed from inside black and gold-rimmed doors. I let out a laugh of sheer amazement and walked in – definitely not what I expected.

I must have appeared slightly out of place with my big snowboarding backpack double-strapped across my upper and lower chest, my alpaca and snowbird stuffed animals poking their little heads out of the second tier of zippers, a large brown camera bag dangling from my left side, and my black purse hanging from my right shoulder – all the necessary equipment to capture people, pictures and voices. Storytellers often get a pass when it comes to dress codes at fancy events, right? Upon reflection, maybe it was my black suit that was out of place.

Glitz and glam. The interior of the Taipei Regents Hotel. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

I stumbled my way to the main artery of the hotel – a grand 360-degree circular opening featuring two tiers of fancy buffets, cafes, and a red-carpeted staircase elegantly cascading from what looked like a large ballroom. Instinct led me to the staircase, and I followed a group of men in black and white suits to the top.

The scene before me confirmed that I was in the right place. A flurry of well-dressed volunteers scurried back and forth between two long check-in tables, whispering commands and comments into lav-mikes clipped firmly onto finely pressed collars. 2017 International Forum on Food Waste Management flashed from a standing banner; green and white colors highlighted the schedule for the one-day, two-part affair, featuring speakers from the South Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Singaporean governments as well as the World Bank, Taiwanese academia and private international waste management companies. The venue location suddenly made sense.

I checked in and wandered into the ballroom. The room was set up for approximately 300 people with a finely lit stage and 12 rows of long rectangular white-clothed tables. I smiled at the little gift placed neatly at every designated seat – a portable pink thermos with 2017 International Forum on Food Waste Management inscribed in cursive on a metal cap. They were taking the theme of food waste management seriously.

The perfect accompaniment for a year-round sustainable lifestyle. Also one of the prizes for the first #MyWasteMyWay digital media contest! (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

The program would have been a typical, well-organized formal function with set speeches from leaders in the field, a flurry of PowerPoint presentations highlighting data, successes and challenges, and photo-ops with top-tier officials-- if it wasn’t for the MC.

As the lights dimmed, a tall man in a tight black suit stood confidently behind the wooden podium, his forehead shining brilliantly in the spotlight. In a voice that could have easily been announcing the next Hollywood epic, he bellowed greetings and salutations to all participants in rapid-fire English.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced into the mic, “it is my pleasure to kick off the 2017 International Food Waste Management Conference! We look forward to a productive session, though please note that we are tight on time, so without further ado,” his voice dipped dramatically then crescendoed, “let’s save the planet together! Please join me as we welcome our first speaker!” He raised his hands to his cheekbones and clapped one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine times in a brisk succession – it felt like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

The MC’s blatant and unbridled enthusiasm was almost contradictory to the official dynamic of the space. All the other volunteers and hotel staff were treating the conference speakers with extreme care and delicacy given the stature of their respective positions, while he was putting on a show. I couldn’t help but sense the confusion in the room and smile at the awesomeness of the situation. The man knew what he was doing-- he was working the room.

The MC (right) posed and ready for the signal to begin. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

The Serious Stuff: Conference Takeaways The next eight hours featured back-to-back presentations from representatives of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan. Each spoke at length about their respective food waste management policies, programs and technical designs. All representatives dealt with similar constraints – high-density populations, land scarcity and food imports – and utilized similar solutions:

  • Waste-to-Energy systems: converting food waste into biogas for energy consumption
  • Composting: Taipei City’s system separates food waste from liquid kitchen waste and then converts it to either fertilizer or pig feed for farmers & companies to purchase.
    • Fun fact: 49% of food waste comes from oil used for cooking.
  • Reduction at the Source: to combat excessive food waste, governments are encouraging people to purchase the amount of food they need, and no more.
  • Resource Recycling: Recycling in Taipei City is free, but throwing out trash isn’t.
    • If you don’t want to sort and recycle your goods at home, you are required by law to purchase a government-mandated blue plastic bag to place your “trash” in. While still relatively inexpensive, this method forces people to pay for their waste. All items in the blue bag are burned in one of the three waste incinerators located in the outer northern districts of the city.

A slide from Taipei City Government Deputy Commissioner Tsai Lin-yi's presentation.

When time arrived for the Q&A, I raised my hand. The moderator, Dr. Tu, an Environmental Consultant at the World Bank, smiled at me and said, "Ladies first." Within seconds, a staff member appeared and thrust the mike into my hands. This was it. I had the first question on the floor.

"Q: You all mentioned that the primary strategy to reduce excessive food waste is to encourage people to buy only what they need. But how does this approach apply to small or middle-sized businesses that are uncertain what their customer flow is going to be for the day or for the week? How can they prep, or what models can they use to minimize their food waste?   A: Singapore – the government created a small-business guidebook for managing food waste and developed an online tracking system where people can report restaurants struggling with food waste issues to the government, so that officials can locate and work effectively with them to change their waste behaviors.   Japan – the Tokyo government is attempting to encourage more people to purchase imperfect foods or foods nearing their expiration dates; they created a program where chefs introduce recipes and cook meals made entirely of nearly expired foods to inspire people to rethink about recyclable foods.   Taiwan – civil society is taking the lead with the implementation of Leftover Restaurants and Fridge -Shares. The ingredients of Leftover Restaurants are all foods nearing their expiration dates, and the Fridge-Share is a fridge where people can take what they need, similar to the library book-shares in bookcases located outside of people’s homes. Take a book, leave a book; take some food, share some food.   "

The forum concluded with a pledge to develop low-carbon, sustainable cities featuring resource recycling and reductions in waste. All speakers were ushered onto the stage, and under the direction of the MC, told to pose with a “thumbs ups. Yes, everybody thumbs up. Let’s save the environment together. Thumbs up!”

I left the hotel with a strong sense of purpose. Government is merely one part of the solution - the will of people and the drive of businesses must also work in tandem to tackle the issue of food waste management and environmental sustainability at large. The adventure into the world of waste management was just beginning.

Forum speakers pose with a thumbs up signaling their collaboration and commitment to reducing food waste. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

For More Information:A complete list of the agenda, speakers, and access to all the PowerPoints of the respective presentations can be found here:

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