Did you know that during the last few years, Swedish restaurants and grocery stores reduced food loss and waste by 15-35%? According to the Swedish EPA, the sector improved its ways of reducing waste and recycling of what is not being sold.
Yet, Sweden has a long way to go to food waste elimination. If we look only at the restaurant sector in the country, every year around 80,000 tonnes of perfectly fine food is discarded! So, even if we can see some improvements nationally, a great deal remains to be done on all levels in Sweden and elsewhere, from primary production to food industry to the level of the consumers.
“No more!”, said a group of students at Uppsala University. Cathy Xiao Chen saw a business opportunity in food waste rather than the hurdles. Cathy and her business partner started a new initiative called Smaka Lokal that targets food waste from restaurants and aims to build awareness about food waste reduction among consumers. We talked to Cathy Xiao Chen and asked her about inspiration, challenges and practicalities of tackling food waste in Sweden.
Q: You’ve been leading the start-up Smaka Lokal in Uppsala. Could you tell us more about this initiative? How was the idea born?
CXC: I met Farshid, the other co-founder, through a mutual friend who brought us together with an idea of reducing food waste among students in Uppsala. We got inspiration from a project I had coordinated previously called The Scrap Lunch Project in which we collected supermarket food waste and prepared free food for 110 students at Kalmar Nation, in collaboration with Glimten i Gryten, Uppsala Konsert och Kongress, and Uppsala Nation Owl. Initially, the idea was to create an app to allow students to share unwanted foods for free.
Unfortunately, that did not work out, but Farshid and me continued and set up Smaka Lokal.
Smaka Lokal is still currently in the development stage. We hope to launch our pilot project before the end of the year. Our platform will connect restaurants to locals and advertise surplus food that they would have thrown away otherwise. Food waste is a huge passion of mine. And really, it’s just like every other resource. We should aim to make our resource use as efficient as possible otherwise it contributes to the very present and enormous issue that is climate change.
Q: How does it work?
CXC: Local restaurants businesses will be able to use our app to make their surplus food available for purchase. If they are changing their menu and need to sell meals, or ordered too much, or if there are few customers coming in for dinner one night than expected, they can post a picture with a description of food items which everyone will be able to see. People with the app will be able to find these meals and buy them at a cheaper price, and go to the business to pick up the food – just like takeaway.
Q: How does your initiative increase awareness about food waste among consumers and fosters sustainable eating habits?
CXC: Since we’ve started, we’ve seen a few similar apps appearing in other countries around Europe. It’s very challenging and sometimes we wonder if we should give up, but we really hope to make a difference. We want to reduce food waste. We want enterprises to see first-hand that adopting a more sustainable business model can be profitable. And we want good food to be more accessible to all people in society.
I think affluent countries have a responsibility to do more to minimise their citizens’ carbon footprint, and not only by ensuring that poorer nations do not reach the same level of consumption and impact. In a perfect world, I would very much like to see our app bringing more awareness about responsible consumption.
Q: What challenges did you face setting up Smaka Lokal?
CXC: Every day is a challenge for us. We’re doing everything for the first time and we have to ask for help every step of the way. We can do research and ask questions and seek advice, but at the end of the day, there are always things that we never anticipated and we have to somehow deal with all of those.
We applied to a few different awards and competitions in Sweden and abroad. The most valuable thing for us was not the recognition, but the mentors, the industry insight, and the network that we gained from reaching out.
Q: What specific advice could you give to young people who would like to become entrepreneurs with focus on environmental issues and the agri-food industry?
CXC: In my view, experience is important, but one can only gain experience through doing. It’s more important to have intrinsic motivation for change and willingness to do things that most people won’t do. You need to be able to work when everyone is out being social and having fun. You need to have a personality that can deal with constant criticism and be able to deal with that to figure out how to make things work in the best way possible.
You also need to be able to trust people and work well in a team. Knowledge is imperfect and it is impossible for a single person to know everything. More and more organisations are realising now that it’s incredibly important to have transdisciplinary collaboration to move things forward in a way that includes many perspectives to avoid creating problems later on. This is definitely something that smaller teams need to adopt as well.
Do you want to find out more about the issue of food waste? Check out the work of SIANIs Expert Group on Food Waste Prevention Strategies for Global Food Chains.