QingHui passing rescued food from one partner to a staff member of another partner (PHOTO: DIVERT FOR 2ND LIFE)
In this edition of Groundup Features: we speak to QingHui, founder of Divert for 2nd Life (D2L) – a groundup initiative which aims to achieve zero food waste in Singapore through collecting various forms of unwanted/unsellable/unserved/ugly/damaged/surplus food items and giving them a second life, be it for consumption, non-consumption or other alternative uses like composting.
I am the founder of D2L, and I have been involved in food rescue work for quite some time although I only gave D2L its proper name last year. We have been rescuing items from various businesses since 2017 or 2018 (I can’t remember the exact date as I didn’t record it down). D2L has grown a lot in terms of the number of businesses we partner with and the number of rescuers last year. Both must move in tandem, so it is quite tricky trying to ensure we have enough rescuers to match the businesses and organisations that we rescue from. I think we have managed to do that whilst navigating some organisational challenges due to our large growth last year.
D2L’s distinguishing trait is our focus on zero waste, food waste in particular. Many groups around the world focus on providing vulnerable communities with greater access to food, which helps to reduce consumable food waste. For D2L, there is no mention of food in our name because our objective is ultimately zero waste. Within the realm of zero waste, we are focusing on food because it is the most perishable yet practical and usable type of waste. Everybody needs food, yet there is so much food waste. Thus, it is the easiest type of waste to transfer to those who need food and/or can make use of the food waste.
When we tell businesses that we want to collect food that they do not want, they may think that the food they are throwing away is not suitable for human consumption. Additionally, if we tell businesses that we only accept food that is consumable, they may only give us a small amount or even none of their food waste. But if we tell them that we are a zero food waste group and we want to collect everything that is unsuitable or unsellable, we get to rescue more items.
Essentially, we just want to collect whatever they deem as unsellable or unwanted; we do not want businesses to be worried if the food is suitable for human consumption or not. We want to achieve zero waste and not just collect food that they think is suitable for human consumption.
To achieve zero food waste, we want to be able to collect everything and empower our rescuers and recipients to be able to sort out what can be consumed from what cannot be consumed. We also want to teach them that there are many uses for food that cannot be consumed. With such knowledge, our rescuers and recipients take full responsibility for the food that they choose to consume ultimately.
D2L’s scorecard highlights their progress to date (PHOTO: DIVERT FOR 2ND LIFE)
Food sustainability and farm-to-fork issues were not taught in school in Singapore. It was only in college that I was exposed to such issues. I did my undergraduate degree in the US and the movement for sustainable food systems is a lot more prominent there. I am thankful that I was surrounded by peers passionate about social and environmental justice.
I belonged to an environmental programme house, and we organised all our meals as a co-operative. We would buy directly from local farmers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, subscribe to local artisanal food makers and support many other smallholder producers and makers at farmers’ markets. Many of my college mates from the co-op grew up in such an environment in the US, which familiarised them with these issues. I learned a lot from them and also got to know more about regenerative farming like permaculture and biodynamic farming as part of local sustainable food systems.
I grew interested in food systems because I am also really into health. I have been both an environmentalist and a health-conscious person since young. In college, I got more immersed in the interdisciplinary nature of food issues. There are many issues surrounding food, not just from a health standpoint but also from an environmental standpoint. I continued my exploration of food and agriculture issues during my masters programme.
I did my masters in the UK, where I was first introduced to freeganism during an environmental book club session. That opened my eyes to the huge amount of waste in the world. It made perfect sense to use things that others do not want, to reduce our resource consumption and help reduce waste at the same time.
It has been quite a journey in a sense that I have been aware of all these issues for quite a long time, but did not really act on them until a few years ago. I would say that starting D2L is the culmination of what I have learnt and seen for myself all these years.
Speaking with businesses to persuade them to give their food waste is always challenging but there are some businesses who come on board quickly, or even proactively reach out to us for us to help to clear their unsellable items. When this happens, I feel very relieved and encouraged. Many businesses have concerns about liability and reputation so when there are businesses that immediately agree without asking me to sign an agreement, I feel really happy. We do not get this often but there are a handful of businesses that have onboarded quickly because their values are aligned with ours and they understand what we do.
Seeing the businesses and organisations we partner grow in their understanding of zero food waste is encouraging as well. Initially they may only give items that are easily seen as “donatable”, like surplus items, leftover unserved food, but gradually they start giving other items like by-products of certain processes, raw ingredients, partially used items etc - which we are able to pass on to discerning users who know how to separate the edibles from the non-edibles, and take full responsibility for what they use.
I am also encouraged by rescuers who creatively upcycle all the food waste in various ways, not only those that are clearly edible, but even those that do not seem edible at first glance like scraps, trimmings, peels. The transformation into beautiful creations which they then share with others also serves to educate the public on food waste.
D2L rescuers picking up cartons of cane sugar syrup from their partner (PHOTO: DIVERT FOR 2ND LIFE)
A huge challenge is to convince businesses that we may not necessarily be using their food for human consumption, which is a perennial worry for many of them. They do not want to be found out giving things that they think should not be given.
Another challenge that we have is illustrated by a situation we are currently facing – our rescue from an outlet of a bakery chain has been going very well. However the boss is hesitant to open more outlets as they are afraid of policies which may not allow them to do so. Although we explained about food safety regulations and our practices that protect our partners and maintain confidentiality , they are still afraid. While we do our best to explain to businesses, this challenge is not something that we can actively solve all the time, and we hope that the government will incentivise businesses to be zero waste and support those that allow their waste to be diverted for higher and better uses instead of throwing it away or even putting them in a biodigester.
Our model is decentralised. We work with multiple businesses and there are rescues happening every day at different times; my rescuers do not gather and sort out the food waste together. The rescuers will go to the businesses at different times and locations usually on their own or at most with another rescuer, collect the food, and handle everything themselves, including the processing, sharing and distribution of food.
For example, out of several bags of items collected from a grocer, 10% may be unsuitable for consumption due to various reasons, for example if they are mouldy. The rescuer will sort out the food and separate food that is suitable for human consumption from those that are not. Foods unsuitable for human consumption are then given a second life in various ways, such as by composting. All the rescuers do the sorting themselves according to their own schedules and locations of convenience, whether in their own homes or elsewhere.
We are not a centralised organisation; what we do is bring businesses on board and rescuers to staff these rescues. We educate rescuers on various matters related to food rescue, recovery and safety, and our reliable rescuers will then use their discretion to handle, process, share and distribute the collected food. As mentioned earlier, we provide rescuers with the knowledge on how to tell if food is suitable for consumption, how to process them and the things that can be done for non-consumable food. This empowers them to do it themselves because as a zero food waste rescue group, our focus is on diverting as much food as possible from the bin.
D2L’s rescuers transporting rescued food items from their vehicle to a distribution point (PHOTO: DIVERT FOR 2ND LIFE)
Honestly, I did not think that D2L would grow to be this big. For me, I just could not stand food being thrown away, so it compelled me to do something about it. It started with me knowing that there were certain businesses that I could rescue food from, so I gathered a bunch of people to rescue from these places and then it just grew like that. Along the way, we developed systems and processes as the organisation grew. For me, it has been an organic process because I did not even think that I would be starting a groundup initiative.
I would say to people who are thinking of starting an initiative, there is no better time to do it. You do as your schedule allows because you do not want to overstretch yourself. This is for the long term. Ensure that you can cope and manage your own life and that it is sustainable, or at least have a backup in place so that you can hand over your responsibilities in a responsible way.
For D2L, the nature of what we do requires great responsibility so it may be different for other groundup groups where even if they stop, it does not cause a huge disruption. For me, I have been working with these businesses for quite some time so I cannot stop as and when I like, because of the relationships that have been nurtured. Therefore, I need to ensure that the rescuers who join us are responsible and will not affect our credibility. This is all the more so because food safety and people’s health and well-being and the reputation of our partners are at stake, so we are very particular about the integrity and reliability of our rescuers.
If you belong to or know of any businesses or organisations that have any form of unwanted, unsellable, excess, or damaged food at any part of the food supply chain, we would love to partner them towards zero food waste. You are also welcomed to join us as a rescuer or help us in other aspects, such as outreach, education, administrative and tech support etc. You can always contact us via our website, Instagram and Facebook. These are also the platforms where businesses can contact us if they have any questions or wish to partner with us.
Beyond just businesses that sell food, we also partner organisations that supply food for their internal stakeholders, such as schools or corporates that provide staff meals, as food waste can happen wherever food is supplied or served for whatever purpose.
If neither of the above is applicable to you, just helping to share about us to your network would be of great help, so that we can raise awareness of food waste, reach out to more businesses, organisations and individuals to engage them in our zero food waste mission.
D2L rescuers unloading rescued food items from the vehicle to another sharing/distribution point (PHOTO: DIVERT FOR 2ND LIFE)
D2L helps Singapore be a zero waste city. The government is concerned about achieving both zero waste and reducing food waste so D2L really contributes to the government’s vision of how Singapore can be a zero waste city.
There is also the aspect of improving our food security. The less food waste we have, the more resilient we are in terms of the amount of food that is available for people.
Although D2L does not stress on social justice and food insecurity elements, it incidentally can become quite a significant component because a lot of the food we rescue goes to people who are truly grateful for the food items as they might be time starved or tight on finances. Some rescuers share the food with vulnerable communities and those who would benefit from a greater variety of food, such as rental flat residents, migrant workers and others who have fallen through the cracks; some rescuers come from challenging backgrounds themselves and it is heartening that such rescuers, despite their difficult situation, are passionate about reducing food waste and taking proactive steps to not only contribute to an environmental cause, but also to help themselves get food that would otherwise be wasted.
As an organisation, D2L does not require our rescuers to keep a report card of the number of recipients they share the rescued food with, though we do have rough estimates on periodic feedback we get from our rescuers. My overriding mission is zero food waste and I am just focused on getting as many businesses and organisations that have any quantity of food waste, no matter how large or small, on board.
The more food we rescue and divert from the bin, the more we can contribute to Singapore in terms of reducing the amount of food waste and resources needed to generate these food, converting them into useful things for society, be it food for those who appreciate it, or non-consumption products that also result in resource conservation. D2L’s environmental and social contributions help Singapore be a City of Good.
Durian! Contrary to popular opinion, durian is healthy!
Actually I would recommend the food from all our partners who are so worthy of our support as they believe in going zero food waste. Our partners span from farm to fork, across the food supply chain - supplying a whole range of food from local farm fresh produce, imported produce, locally made food, imported food, cooked food of different cuisines, baked goods, local delicacies…
As many of our partners prefer to be anonymous, I can’t share their names publicly, but you can check out our Instagram and Facebook for those companies that are ok to reveal their identities. Most if not all of them supply healthy wholesome food! With more people supporting zero food waste businesses, more companies will also be encouraged to adopt zero food waste practices!
* This feature has been edited for clarity
About the authors:
Ziqing is a Skills For Good volunteer who believes that every one is born kind and thus hopes to highlight the kindness that society has to offer.
Jannelle is Content Producer at Groundup Central. Armed with her camera, she looks forward to meeting & documenting the everyday heroes of our lives.
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