He says the idea came to him after dinner. “It was at a buffet restaurant, at the end of the evening. The founders were surprised how much food ended up in the bin, even though it was perfectly good to eat.” And given that the founders in question – Chris Wilson, Jamie Crummie and Klaus Pedersen – liked to fiddle around with everything from smartphones to programming, it was a small step from there to coming up with a prototype app. It probably wouldn’t have become a success story, though, if one of the three nerds hadn’t shown his invention a few months later to a lady who happened to be sitting next to him on a trip. That lady was Mette Lykke, a 38-year-old Dane, “start-upper” and creator of Endomondo, a fitness app with millions of users. The year was 2015. Lykke joined the geeks’ start-up, got the funds and became CEO. Now she is telling the world about Too Good to Go, the latest and highly effective high-tech weapon against food waste, which has recently come to Italy, having started in Copenhagen and already conquered half of Europe.
Too good to go
The premise is simple. The app geolocates supermarkets, cafes, bakeries, pizzerias and even restaurants – essentially, anywhere that ends up throwing away piles of food left on its shelves at the close of each day. It lets them sell this stuff online instead, before closing time, at discounts of 66 to 75%, in what it calls “magic boxes”. These, really more like little bags full of food, cost between three and seven euros. After signing up to the app, you can look at reviews of shops, choose one, order and pay. Then you turn up at the arranged time and pick up your box. Everyone’s a winner. The shop saves itself a loss and the customer saves money, not to mention getting something exciting for a dinner or a surprise breakfast, plus the satisfaction of knowing they’re part of the war on waste. “Be a waste warrior!” entreats one of the slogans that pop up when you use the app. What’s in the boxes varies, obviously, depending on what’s on sale, but what stays the same is the value. “The truth is,” says Lykke, “it’s a win-win-win situation,” because there’s a third winner here – the environment.
Just look at the statistics. Italians throw away about 9 million tonnes of food every year, worth 15 billion euros. That’s 0.88% of GDP, or if you prefer, 250 euros a head, which is a better way to look at it, because restaurants and supermarkets are not the biggest wasters – we are. Sixty per cent of food ends up into the house’s garbage, and a lot of it is still good to eat. If you look at the wider perspective, it’s even more shocking. That 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted every year (according to FAO estimates for 2018) could be used to feed all 821 million poor people in the world at risk from hunger, four times over. Add to that the environmental damage and you see just what an emergency it is. To produce all the food we waste in Italy every year, we emit 24 million tonnes of CO2 (according to Coldiretti). That’s why, to tackle the problem, we need everyone’s help. And we can all do that by using smartphones.
The “magic box” by Too Good To Go (toogoodtogo.com)
A great example
With 19.5 million users and 30.2 million magic boxes sold, Too Good to Go appears to be the most popular, but many similar apps are cropping up, a lot of them based on the same formula. In Toronto, Flashfood recently relaunched an identical initiative, born and formed in the USA, and got supermarket chains like Meijer on board. No Food Wasted (not to be confused with the Indian organisation of the same name that runs food banks) has done much the same in Holland. It has 20,000 users and works more or less like Too Good to Go, selling boxes online full of products that would otherwise go off, with huge discounts slapped on them. The difference here is that users can also make a shopping list of their preferred products, and when those become available, the app tells them. The result? 18 to 25% less waste at every shop that’s signed up. “Two thousand five hundred euros a month on average,” notes August De Vocht, the developer.
In Singapore, one Tan Jun Yuan had great success with his venture. This travelling salesman in his thirties was getting niggled by how much bak kut teh (a soup with bread and pork chops) was left in his pot at the end of the day. He got together with a friend and came up with 11th Hour, an app which shows you dishes and menus at very generous discount prices, offered by restaurants around the city a bit before closing time. Released in 2016, it was downloaded thousands of times before the company got embroiled in disputes.
Back in Europe, the Italian venture My Foody is making a name for itself with apps that, quite simply, offer products that are about to go off from supermarkets like Lidl and Coop. And in Britain, Asda, the nation’s second biggest supermarket chain after Tesco’s, has come out with an app to combat waste and better manage the flow of supply. A London start-up, Winnow (whose shareholders include Ikea) has created software based on Artificial Intelligence, using a scanner which spots food waste in restaurant’s kitchen dustbins.
When a chef chucks something away, the algorithm sees it, weighs it and measures it, then after a little while, says what they need to buy less of in order to waste less. The producers say it will “save eight to ten per cent on average.”
Other technologies step in before the food’s anywhere near the bin. An interesting example is Cheetah, an app developed by researchers at the University of Twente in Holland and just tested in Ghana, where food waste, according to Food for Africa, is at a staggering 45%. The country struggles when it comes to getting fruit and vegetables from growers to shops. What with unlinked roads, broken-down lorries and a gamut of other hindrances, a lot of food is ruined before it even makes it to the supermarket shelves. Cheetah lets lorry drivers know, in real time, the problems they might come up against on their route, be it traffic, gridlocks, landslides, or even roadblocks and attacks. For now, the app’s in beta. The definitive version is expected in May and will also be launched in other West African countries.
Winnow's scanner to monitor bins’trash (winnowsolutions.com)
Education above all
But battling waste with smartphones is not just about making everyone a winner. Some apps have higher goals, like encouraging good behaviour. The Italian Ubo (short for Una Buona Occasione, “a good opportunity”) explains how to preserve food, use kitchen scraps, make a seasonal shopping list and even read sell-by dates properly – “Best before end” is open to interpretation and responsible for endless waste. Also of interest is Yo No Desperdicio (“I don’t waste anything”), developed by the Spanish charity Prosalus, which lets you “become part of a network to avoid food waste, sharing what you don’t consume.” Here’s how it works. You sign up and offer online whatever food you’ve got left over, say something in the fridge you know you’re not going to finish. Then you wait till someone reads it and gets in touch with you, and you meet up. Essentially, it creates a community. The overall effect is very positive, a shared project which is as practical as it is idealistic. Much the same could be said of Lastminute sotto casa (“on your doorstep at the last minute”), an “innovative start-up with social benefits” that’s totally “made in Italy”. In practice, it’s the same idea as Too Good To Go, but for local networks. It tells you what there is to buy at discounts at the shops right in your neighbourhood.
Last but not least, some apps have a double altruistic appeal, combining the chance to wage war on waste with the chance to help poor people directly. One example is Bring The Food, developed by Fondazione Kessler and Banco Alimentare (the Italian food bank charity that runs collections every year in all Italian supermarkets). The app asks shopping centres and shops to declare online what they’re going to throw away and make it available to charities, churches and help centres. This model has been going for some time in the English-speaking world, with examples like Food Cloud (very popular in Britain and Ireland, with more than 3,000 charities among its customers) and the American Food Rescue and Food Rescue Hero.
The most American, though, is the suitably named Food Cowboy. It presents itself as the best tool on the internet to crack down on the United States’ king-size waste, worth 165 billion dollars a year, double what the nation’s poor spend in the form of food stamps. The method? “It’s the match.com of food. It works like dating apps,” says their site. It’s where supply (surplus food) and demand (hunger) meet, to keep the dustbin empty.
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