With the UK being the biggest food waste culprit in Europe, cutting-edge technology is constantly being developed to tackle this crisis. Lara Elcheik explores how two mobile apps are aiming to unlock the value of food destined for the bin.
Sinead Fenton has just collected 39 jars of red onion chutney from an Enfield food bank. It’s pelting down with hailstones and the 25-year-old has completely underestimated the weight of the jars on her back, but she is determined to spread the chutney love.
“Want the equivalent of gold dust in chutney? Well, I’ve got 39 jars of the amazing Rubies in the Rubble Red Onion Chutney up for grabs!” Sinead then posts on the food-sharing app OLIO. “Here’s some quick maths for you: 468 red onions were carried across London on my back in a food saving feat!”
She soon receives a request on the app from someone nearby and the OLIO exchange is complete within minutes.
OLIO was founded by Tessa Cook in 2015 and aims to connect neighbours with each other so that their surplus food and non-food items can be shared, instead of thrown away. This could be unwanted food, food nearing its expiry date, or unused cupboard items. Users like Sinead simply post a picture and description of their items, pick-up details, and wait for a neighbour to request the item.
Sinead leads a busy lifestyle. Besides being a food waste warrior and avid user of OLIO, she’s a geologist who currently works for a management-consulting firm. In her spare time, she volunteers at a food bank, writes and takes photos. She created her OLIO account a year ago, but only started to actively use it 2 months ago.
“I had a very bad phone last year so I couldn’t use the app as much,” she admits. “Now that I’m working in London, I’ve started using it a lot more especially since there’s a new ‘non-food’ section. I’m quite thrifty when it comes to food waste so I initially never really had that much to put up on the app.
“It’s only when I get a hold of something bulky like 12 kilos of onion chutney or even 10 kilos of carrots, that I’m able to use it for food-sharing.”
Sinead has already listed many non-food items on the app, sharing household items like toiletries, cosmetics and kitchen utensils.
“I used to be a bit of a hoarder with anything used for making cupcakes so I had every kind of cupcake-making utensil that you could possibly think of. I put a few of those on OLIO and it felt good knowing that they’re no longer just sitting in my cupboard and that somebody’s actually going to use them.”
One of the reasons Sinead enjoys using the app is because of the connections users make. She has recommended the app to fellow volunteers and users at the food bank, as well as her co-workers at the firm, and hopes that more people will start using it when they comprehend the message and dialogue surrounding food waste.
“I think OLIO is a great concept as it’s a good way of building that sense of community. I think a lot of us have moved so far away that we don’t really know our neighbours or people within our community,” says Sinead, who moved to London from Hertfordshire. “Utilising that collaborative world of food waste and technology as a tool to exchange and meet people is a brilliant idea.
“I did a meetup yesterday morning when I got off the train with someone and we just had a chat, which is unheard of from a stranger in London, about the app,” she recalls. “It’s just really nice to be able to chat with people over something that’s doing good for both the community and environment.”
A digital spin on an outdated tradition
Initiating the digital revival of the once commonplace practice of borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbour wasn’t so easy for Tessa Cook. While supermarkets often take the blame for food waste, we bin nearly half of the 15 million tonnes of food thrown away annually in the UK at home.
The founder of the app and mum-of-two is the daughter of a North Yorkshire farmer and says that she has always hated the idea of food being wasted.
“I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing food. As a result, the inspiration for OLIO came when I was moving country and found myself on moving day with some good food that my family hadn’t managed to eat, but that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away,” she says. “And so, I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably.”
Tessa thought it was crazy how she should have to throw her food away when there were potentially plenty of people within hundreds of metres of her that would gladly take it. The problem was that they just weren’t aware of her dilemma.
“That’s when the idea for a mobile app where neighbours and local shops and cafés can share leftover food came about,” she says. “Once I’d had the original idea, I started to research the problem of food waste more broadly, and what I discovered shocked and terrified me.”
And it is indeed both shocking and terrifying. Over a third of all food produced globally is thrown away so it’s no exaggeration to say that food waste is currently one of the largest global problems. UK households waste £13 billion worth of edible food each year, costing the average family £700.
Tessa’s ultimate goal was to address and prevent all the issues caused by food waste. Such issues include food waste being the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the fact that the government is spending over £1 billion a year in disposal costs.
Tessa then convinced her classmate from the Stanford Business School in California and daughter of Iowa hippies, Saasha Celestial-One, to help her set up the app.
The co-founders realised that apps and the sharing economy undoubtedly seem to grow symbiotically. By harnessing the powers of mobile technology and the sharing economy and combining them with an engaged local community, OLIO was born. OLIO was officially launched in the second half of 2015 and was made available across the entire UK at the end of January 2016.
Since then, almost 170,000 users have signed up to the app and over 200,000 items have been shared, which is equivalent to 80,000 meals.
“We’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the positive feedback from our OLIO users,” Tessa says. “Neighbours are loving how quick, easy and fun it is to share both food and non-food items with their neighbours.
“Businesses are also extremely positive about our Food Waste Heroes programme, where small groups of OLIO volunteers are matched with a business location to collect any unsold food at the end of the day and re-distribute it to the local community via the app.”
But with such an accomplishment, there’s bound to be some difficulties.
“Our biggest challenge is encouraging more of our signed up users to take the leap of faith and add or request their first item,” she explains. “Once they do, they absolutely love it, because obviously sharing food feels great and meeting a neighbour is fun! However, we appreciate that at first the idea of ‘sharing food with a neighbour’ can seem a little strange to some.
“But we hope that much like Airbnb has normalised renting your home to a stranger, OLIO will enable it to become second nature to share surplus food rather than toss it away, especially when so many people are going hungry and the environmental consequences of food waste are devastating.”
With a growing number of users and a volunteer number nearing 10,000, the future for OLIO is looking bright.
“Our vision is an unashamedly bold one of millions of hyper-local sharing networks all over the world, so that our most precious resources can be shared, not thrown away.
“At its heart, OLIO is all about community, and using mobile technology to reconnect neighbours over the road and round the corner with each other.”
The response to unsold meals
While OLIO focuses on preventing household items from being thrown away, Too Good To Go saves leftover meals from being chucked away at restaurants, cafés and bakeries. The mobile app is linked to eateries across the UK that list how many unsold meals they have at the end of the day, selling the food at discounted prices for as little as £2.
The app is the brainchild of another duo, Chris Wilson and Jamie Crummie, who met as freshers at Leeds University in 2010. After graduating, both had a shared lightbulb moment.
Jamie was attending an Amnesty International event that was catered by The Real Junk Food Project back in 2013. The organisation served meals made with intercepted ingredients that would have otherwise been consigned to incineration or landfill.
“That event was the catalyst for me. I talked to the staff at the event and I couldn’t believe the gravity and scale of food waste as I really wasn’t aware of it before,” He says. “We’re very much in the dark about food waste and there hadn’t been any push by anyone to look at ways to curb our own food waste and the impact that it has on our planet.”
Meanwhile Chris had moved to Denmark to be with his fiancée and was studying for a master’s degree in Business Ethics at the time. That was when he stumbled upon what was a Danish Too Good To Go website which intrigued him. Chris approached the team behind the concept and set about developing the app for the UK. Jamie visited Chris in Denmark and was soon hired after he was told the idea. The duo eventually went door to door to get restaurants in the UK to sign up and four years later, we have Too Good To Go in its form now. With 200 active partners as of 2017, the initiative has rescued nearly 20,000 meals in the UK since operating.
The team have big plans for themselves and aspire to make Too Good To Go synonymous with tackling food waste.
“We want to up our numbers in terms of the meals we can rescue from going into the bin,” Jamie says. “A lot of restaurants cafés and bakeries are already very receptive to our idea, but some more so than others as it’s quite a novel concept.
“I mean, it does seem strange to have someone randomly come up to you and say: ‘Oh, hey guys, you know that food you throw away at the end of the day? Yeah, we want people to come and pick it up’.”
Although most of the app’s partnering eateries are in London, Jamie thinks the app is the biggest success in Aberdeen, where the few places partnered with the app have taken Too Good To Go by storm.
Jamie adds: “There are places up there selling out daily which is fantastic. It means they’re closing their doors having to throw absolutely no food away.”
When asked whether he is a frequent user of the app, Jamie laughs: “I live off Too Good To Go! You’ve got to practice what you preach so I often stack my fridge up with different meals I’ve picked up one day and it sorts me out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I probably shouldn’t boast about that, though. It’d seem as if all those 20,000 meals have been rescued by just me.”
Though they have already achieved so much, the Too Good To Go team wish to expand, but are finding it difficult.
“We haven’t been very active in expanding as we are quite a small team. We do want to be operating everywhere and we want to ensure that Too Good To Go is an app that can be enjoyed by everyone. In the coming weeks and months, we want to get more places and users on board for the app.
“Current users themselves can help us in expanding by referring us to places that can benefit from the app and get introduced to the concept. We do really want to be active in as many places to rescue food from going to landfill.”
The best thing about the sharing economy, or collaborative consumption, is that, besides connecting you with people, they can also save you a lot of time and money. There’s no need to travel much or spend money with OLIO, and Too Good To Go links users with perfectly good meals in danger of being binned at a reduced cost.
What about Too Good To Go working with apps like OLIO?
“It’d be great to work with similar initiatives,” Jamie says. “After all, we’re all striving towards the same goal, which is to eliminate food waste.”