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Just how helpful are food waste apps?

Miriam Partington
November 1, 2019

Copenhagen-based startup Too Good To Go is on a mission to drastically reduce food waste globally. But is its marketplace for unsold meals enough to tackle the problem? Miriam Partington has this report.

Food waste in a trash can
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

It's late morning in Berlin and a number of cafes along Karl-Marx-Strasse have food left over from serving breakfast. Bread rolls and pastries languish behind glass counters waiting for a hungry consumer to snap them up, while shop assistants arrange new food items in the window display ahead of the lunchtime rush.

There are so many things to choose from, and yet, many of these unsold items will sadly end up in the trash.

The global issue of food waste is exactly what Copenhagen-based startup Too Good To Go is addressing. Founded in 2016, the company provides a platform for restaurants, bakeries, and supermarkets to sell their surplus produce at a discounted price to consumers seeking a bargain. All you have to do is open the app, find an eatery nearby and collect a "Magic Bag" filled with a tasty surprise.

Just three years ago, the company's team of founders sat in a buffet restaurant observing how food still good enough to eat was simply tossed away at the end of the night. This gave them the impetus to develop a solution to the problem.

The company has since expanded its operations to 13 European countries and has grown its user base to 16 million people. This year, Too Good To Go announced that it has salvaged over 23 million meals and has consequently saved 57,000 tons of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

 "I always thought Too Good To Go could be massive, but where we are now is definitely beyond our original expectations," says Mette Lykke, CEO of Too Good To Go.

School lunch from leftovers

Food waste's footprint

While apps that connect food sellers to food buyers present some of the most promising attempts to battle food waste, the issue is far greater than many people know.

One-third of the food produced for human consumption — approximately 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted every year, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

This excess food simply rots in landfills, contributing 8% to the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.

There's no doubt that food retailers are a big part of the problem. A combination of overestimating the number of customers they get through the door and an overzealous commitment to quality leads to large amounts of food being dumped by restaurants at the end of each day. However, these problems are "unavoidable," according to Mette.

The bright side is that many companies collaborating with Too Good To Go have been able to see how much food they are wasting and have made steps to reduce this level further themselves.

"This is a big part of our business model," Mette explains. "We help our retailers get smarter."

A 'win-win-win' concept

Indeed, there are many advantages for both companies and consumers of using Too Good To Go. Customers pay about one-third of the usual price for meals and are able to participate in a fun initiative which also benefits the planet. Meanwhile, businesses can increase revenue and acquire new customers from the app's growing cohort of users.

Only a small percentage of the revenue made via the app actually goes to the company; the rest "flows straight through to the retailer's bottom line," explained the CEO.

It seems the project is something everyone can get on board with. Andy Smith, a frequent user of Too Good To Go and the owner of a zero-waste essentials shop in London says, "there's a sense of camaraderie between buyer and seller over the app that comes from both of you doing something to protect the planet — even in a small way."

Too Good To Go paper bag
Too Good To Go has come a long way toward changing many people's consumption habitsImage: Too Good To Go

Cecilia Lo, a student based in Berlin, agrees: "Sometimes the food you get isn't what you hoped for, but that's not what it's really about. I can still pay as little as €2.50 [$2.80] for a meal that would otherwise have gone to waste and at the same time give something back to the cafe. It feels good knowing that I'm doing something good."

Growth and impact

Too Good To Go's business model is such that the more the company can scale, the larger the impact it can have.

So far, it's looking good. Too Good To Go received a cash injection of €5 million from existing investors in February this year and Mette says the company is on track to reach its lofty goal of 50 million users of the app by 2020.

At Oslo Innovation Week, a conference held in the Norwegian capital last month, Too Good To Go also won the 2019 Innovation Award for achieving sizable growth while solving a pressing global problem. The jury noted that the company sets a good example for all other growth-stage companies to follow.

Speaking at the conference, Ann-Kristin Raknes Pfruender, country manager of Too Good To Go in Norway, said media awareness and consumer support have been invaluable in helping the company scale its operations.

She added that "storytelling" — that is letting consumers know that the small act of saving one meal can make a tangible difference — has been "key to the company's success."

Saved From the Supermarket

A multi-pronged approach

There is, however, a limit to how much salvaging a lone meal can do to reduce waste. It's more about raising consciousness.

Mette says food waste is rooted in society's throwaway culture and the consumers' pursuit of perfect produce. Dented milk cartons and vegetables sprouting unwanted limbs rarely get a chance to make it off the shelves of a supermarket, let alone to a kitchen table.

Still, it's households that are the biggest culprits of food waste. In the EU, more than half of total food waste (47 million tons) comes from consumer homes, according to the 2016 Fusions report by the European Commission.

Too Good To Go thinks this is because food is increasingly viewed as a commodity rather than a valuable resource in some parts of the world. "We don't have the same respect for food that we used to have," Mette says. "We want to reinstate that respect."

A lot of this will come down to education. Too Good To Go has an ambitious agenda to tackle food waste on four fronts: households, businesses, schools and governments.

In addition to educating households and restaurants on how to manage perishables, optimize their planning and correctly understand food labels, the company is also developing free educational resources for schools to teach children about the effect of food waste on the climate.

"It's not about just saving that one meal; it's about making sure that the consumer understands the breadth of the issue and the measures that can be taken at home," says Mette.

"Tackling food waste is a lot about changing habits."

Danish app saves food from trash can