Shocking statistics on the amount of food we waste has led to a new wave of businesses seeking to solve the problem with technology.
More from: Technology drives a change of mindset
Marc Zornes, co-founder of Winnow – an MRW National Recycling Award winner in 2016 – used to work at management consultancy McKinsey, where he co-authored a significant research paper on resource productivity. He was struck by the statistics: if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind the US and China.
Zornes started Winnow, designed for the hospitality sector, in 2013. He says: “We believe that food is too valuable to waste and that technology can transform the way we use food. What gets measured gets managed, and by using data intelligently, kitchens can be made more efficient.”
Food is thrown away as usual in a bin while it sits on smart weighing meter technology. Staff use a touchscreen, customised to their menu, to identify the type of food discarded and at what stage. Cloud software analyses and records the day’s waste, and the menu integration allows the system to automatically record a number of key metrics.
Staff are shown the value of each item thrown away, in real time, so influencing behaviour. Daily reports pinpoint key opportunities to cut waste, benchmark multiple sites and track performance. Zornes says the technology helps chefs to “achieve greater visibility in their kitchens and make better decisions that lead to dramatically reduced food waste and costs”.
Winnow’s customers, who operate commercial kitchens, typically save 3-8% on food costs while businesses can expect a return on investment of two to 10 times. Winnow uses a ‘software as a service model’ (SaaS) business model, whereby its clients pay a recurring licence fee to access its cloud analytics and reporting platform.
Zornes says: “For years, standard practice for the hospitality sector has been on how to best dispose of food waste rather than how to prevent it. From both a sustainability and commercial perspective, it makes much more sense to prevent food waste once you consider the impact of collection, energy and labour costs that the standard practices fail to address. Our data demonstrates that technology can provide a scalable, cost-effective solution to cut food waste dramatically.”
The business has expanded into several Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets and has won clients such as Ikea, Compass Group, AccorHotels and Costa Cruises.
“Currently we are operating in hundreds of kitchens in 29 countries, saving one meal every five seconds,” says Zornes. “Ultimately, we are working towards a future where every kitchen worldwide uses data to manage waste, in the same way they do now with sales or inventory management.”
A technology that focuses on food waste generated in the home or local businesses is free app, Olio. This allows those with surplus food to upload a photo of the item, a description and details of when and where it can be collected for free. Those looking for food can browse, request what they fancy and arrange collection via a private message. The idea is to connect people on a local basis so that they can share food and avoid it becoming waste.
Tessa Cook, Olio’s co-founder, believes technology “is going to be absolutely pivotal in the battle against food waste”. She also believes it will help to drive behaviour change.
“This requires a widespread consumer mindset shift – from one that has become numbed to throwing away good food to one that is horrified by it. We are hopeful that, as awareness about the problem of food waste gathers momentum, this mindset shift will also start to accelerate,” she explains.
Explaining its business model, Cook says: “Until recently, Olio has focused on proving the model and rapid user growth. But recently we started monetising by charging retailers for our ‘Food Waste Heroes’ programme. This is a service where we match volunteers with a local store. [The volunteers] collect any unsold food at the end of the day – after charities have taken what they want – take it home, add it to the app and redistribute it to the local community.
“As we look to the future, we will also consider monetising through a ‘freemium’ business model whereby a small subset of users who get most value from Olio pay for premium features. We will also investigate the advertising route.”
Cook says ‘Food Waste Heroes’ has almost 700 volunteers supporting approximately 150 locations, and it is growing this part of the business “extremely rapidly”. Volunteers are recruited through the app: users are invited to be an ‘ambassador’ to spread the word about Olio in their local communities. So far, more than 17,000 people have come forward, but it will advertise specific opportunities on a local basis.
Cook believes Olio is the world’s only neighbour- to-neighbour food sharing app, specifically tackling food waste in the home. Currently, around half of all listings are from households and the other half are from volunteers who collect unsold food from local businesses such as Pret a Manger, Morrisons or Sainsbury’s.
The app was made available across the UK in January 2016 and worldwide in October 2016. Since then it has signed up more than 350,000 users and facilitated around 150,000 doorstep exchanges.
Cook says the company’s vision “is an unashamedly bold one. It’s of a world with hundreds of millions of people using Olio to share our most precious resource – food”.
“In the US, 85% of food that is not sold from small food businesses goes to landfill… smaller food businesses have fewer channels for doing something about excess inventory.”
To make this happen it aims to form strategic partnerships with other businesses and brands to enable them to become zero food waste “in an easy, cost-effective way”, as well as partnering with local authorities to spread the word about the app and in turn reduce their municipal waste costs.
A more recent entrant to the food waste app scene is New York-based goMkt. This is designed to connect small businesses that generate food which may otherwise be landfilled, created with New Yorkers seeking food at a bargain. It was launched as a pilot in December with around 15 retailers signed up, ranging from coffee shops to bakeries and small in- dependent supermarkets. Budget-conscious students were targeted as early users.
Retailers can offer either ‘flash sales’ of items that they need to shift fast before they become waste or ‘recurring sales’ for surplus products which regularly occur. On joining the app, an inventory of items is created for the retailer. When it wants to list an item, it selects it from the inventory, publishes it, and users can make a purchase at a discounted price and collect the item from the shop.
Retail partners get a call when an order has been placed, transactions are completed electronically and there are no upfront costs or membership fees. When goMkt sells a product on its partner’s behalf, it takes “a modest fee”, which was 10% for the early pilot adopters.
The app allows retailers to recover value from items they would otherwise have paid to dispose of, creates a new income stream and increases footfall to their stores.
Matthew Holtzman, goMkt’s founder, explains that the pilot was kept small so that attention could be paid to feedback and incorporate it into the app. It was clear that small businesses had a lot of competing priorities on their time, so ensuring the app could blend seamlessly into daily routines was critical.
He says: “In the US, 85% of food that is not sold from small food businesses goes to landfill. That mostly boils down to the fact that smaller food businesses have fewer channels for doing something about excess inventory.” For example, they may not have established relationships with food banks or may not produce the volumes that larger food charities require.
Holtzman says the app should promote the products to a wider audience, and the plan is to have a network of charity partners who can pick up the items if they do not sell, with goMkt processing the tax benefits.
A second product is planned for the business- to-business (B2B) marketplace, such as supermarket groups, wholesalers and manufacturers. This would give them the ability to identify partners, different channels and prioritise according to revenue.
For example, it could allow them to sell ‘downstream’ to another partner, establish a relationship with an institution like a school or provide donation opportunities or connect them to alternative disposal outlets such as anaerobic digestion.
Holtzman explains that the B2B app is about “taking all of these channels that might have existed informally and formalising them in a centralised marketplace”. He wants to free supermarkets from the traditional options of sending back products to manufacturers and returning only 20-30% of the item’s value or sending items to ‘reclamation centres’ which are paid to sort items for return or resale.
Holtzman’s overall drive is to “shift the narrative” around the issue of food waste and who it affects, “and to try to give people a better sense of the value of their food”.
Back in the UK, internet platform Neighbourly links local community causes, projects and charities with people and businesses that can contribute time, resources or funding. Food redistribution is one part of it, and organisations using the platform include Marks & Spencer and Starbucks, as well as many small and medium-sized businesses.
The platform officially launched in 2014 and won a National Recycling Award in 2017, which it says was “a fabulous accolade, and provides us with a strong proof point in our efforts to scale the programme”.
Founder Nick Davies, an ex-agency marketer, set up the business because he believed there was an opportunity to grow community investment significantly by making it easier for people to ask for, and to give, help. His idea was that business could be the most scalable and sustainable long-term solution to solving society’s problems – and that technology could be the enabler.
Will Troughton, head of food redistribution at Neighbourly, says technology is “hugely important” in the drive to reduce food waste. “Food waste reduction is a very complex issue that requires collaboration from many partners. But new technological innovations are allowing us to move faster, scale more easily and collaborate more effectively,” he adds.
Neighbourly charges companies an annual subscription, dependent on the scale of the programme and services required. The platform is free to all charities and community users. What sets it apart is that it is an ‘all-in-one giving platform’ with food redistribution an element.
“On top of our technology that allows food retailers to post surplus and for charities to receive these alerts, the platform also gives visibility to the local causes that are being supported with that surplus,” Troughton explains.
“This means that those causes can attract more support through volunteering and financial donations which can also be facilitated through the platform. Our food retailers also benefit from transparency around where the surplus is going, how it is being used and the communities that are benefitting.”
All M&S stores, excluding franchise M&S Simply Food outlets, are now connected to local food charities and community groups through Neighbourly, to ensure food redistribution is maximised. Lidl is also working with the organisation so all its supermarkets will be connected to the platform by the end of the year.
Neighbourly has recently extended its surplus redistribution scheme to introduce nonfood product donations. Plans include scaling up both the food and non-food redistribution programmes with existing and new clients. Troughton adds: “We will grow the use of our volunteering and fundraising features, and launch more tools and campaigns for individual users to allow society to get more involved in local community action.”
Olio: almost half a million portions of food have been saved via the app so far. The environmental effect of this is equivalent to taking 1.1 million car miles off the road.
Winnow: has halved food waste in hundreds of kitchens, saved 10 million meals a year, saved 18,600 CO2 emissions and delivered £11.5m in savings to customers
Neighbourly: has connected around 2.5 million meals of surplus food with projects that are feeding those in need, such as those who are homeless, in food poverty, suffering from health issues or socially isolated.