Close to 1.3 billion tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) are generated worldwide every year. This is the equivalent of around 25,000 Titanic ocean liners and the World Bank reckons this figure could reach 2.2 billion tons by 2025. Managing this amount of garbage is a huge environmental challenge and is also of course a central issue in people’s lives. If the world’s cities do not fulfil their role efficiently, residents could quickly find themselves faced with the sort of health crisis that arose in the Italian city of Naples some years back. In Beirut, the failure to find a solution to a waste crisis there also brought citizens’ political frustrations to a head. Companies are also becoming increasingly aware of waste-related issues, motivated in part by the environmental concerns of their customers. Whether it results from activities at work or at home, garbage has a considerable impact on global warming. According to a 2015 report from the European Environment Agency, some 3.4% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe are related to waste management. French NGO  Zéro Waste France says that the carbon footprint of waste has been under-estimated, as emissions arising from transportation, waste incineration, and even food waste are attributed to categories other than garbage. In order to save the planet and improve the well-being of populations worldwide, it will be vital to manage all kinds of waste – not just household garbage – better. A number of startups are now addressing this problem and helping companies, public authorities and ordinary people to waste less and recycle more.

Optimising quantities so as to avoid waste

Regard d'expert

Erna Klupacs

Marketing Manager at Winnow

lf the food wasted between the farm and the fork were a country, it would be the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China

Food waste is rife, especially in industrialised countries. Every second, across the world, 41.2 tons of food is thrown away. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that roughly a third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted. The UN body puts the waste figure at $680 billion in developed countries and $310 billion in developing countries. In fact there are a number of solutions that can help reduce waste. The most obvious is to assess needs more accurately so that less has to be thrown away. This is the raison d’être of UK-based startup Winnow. Winnow co-founder Marc Zornes set out to find a solution, given that “one third of all food is wasted from farm to fork and if food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind the USA and China”, points out Erna Klupacs, Marketing Manager at Winnow. In order to help restaurants cut down on waste, make financial savings and at the same time reduce their environmental footprint, Winnow provides a 'smart meter', a system chefs can used to monitor exactly what is being thrown away. “The kitchen team use a touch screen tablet to identify what they’re throwing away. An electronic scale records the weight and sends a message to the user, giving the cost of the food they’ve put in the bin”, she explains. This is an effective way of alerting staff to the cost of discarded food and encouraging them to try to assess needs better so they can do a better job when buying the ingredients which they need to prepare meals. Klupacs says that this is a vital step for restaurant staff, arguing that “driving engagement and shift of mentality is key for success in food waste reduction.”

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Another way to avoid waste is better food conservation. UK-based startup Mimica has developed a solution called Mimica Touch: a bio-reactive label that replaces the use-by date, mimicking the structure of the food and forming a bump when the product is no longer fit to be consumed. This could spell the end of a situation where food which, although past its use-by date is still edible, gets thrown away. If you have more time to consume a food item, you will probably be less likely to throw it out. “For years standard practice for the hospitality sector has been on how to best dispose of food waste rather than how to prevent it,” Erna Klupacs points out. Winnow and Mimica have opted for a different strategy, which harks back to the old saying ‘prevention is better than cure’. In reality, you cannot have one without the other, a fact which has not escaped these companies. Winnow is working in collaboration with other startups in the ecosystem that re-use discarded products, such as French firm Too Good To Go and UK-based Olio.

 “For years standard practice has been on how to best dispose of food waste rather than how to prevent it” 

Give away rather than throw out 

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Olio focuses on individuals. The goal is to “connects neighbours with each other and with local shops & cafes so that surplus food can be shared, not thrown away,” explains Olio co-founder and CEO Tessa Cook. She got the idea for the company three years ago when she was moving house and had food remaining in her kitchen. “I’m a farmer’s daughter, and so have always hated throwing away good food. This is because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it! I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably. Through the whole process it seemed to me crazy that I should have to throw this food away when there were surely plenty of people within hundreds of metres of me who would love it, the problem was they just didn’t know about it. And so the idea of Olio came about.” The system works just like a sales website: a person with surplus food posts a photo on the app and the two parties agree on a place and time for the handover, which is in principle free but the recipient also has the option of making a voluntary gift to a charity. With 350,000 users, the startup now has a strong presence on the social networks and uses impactful images to raise awareness among as many people as possible.

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The business equivalent of Olio is called Spoiler Alert. This  Boston-based startup has come up with a specialised software package designed to help food producers, distributors and vendors manage their unsold items. Starting out from the principle that “not all surplus, unsold food product is unsaleable, and that not all unsaleable product needs to end up as waste,” Spoiler Alert CEO Ricky Ashenfelter and his co-founders – who were all studying at MIT at the time – set out to develop a solution to all this waste. Their idea is to “offering food manufacturers, wholesale distributors, and grocery retailers a business intelligence solution that allows them to get a better handle on their food recovery and waste diversion efforts, as well as a controlled, relationship management portal that facilitates real-time food donations, discounted sales, and/or organics recycling”. Like Olio, Ricky Ashenfelter’s startup believes strongly in giving a second life to products which would otherwise be thrown out. But what happens to produce that is actually thrown into the bin?

Life beyond the garbage bin?

The fate of items thrown into the rubbish bin is often decided at sorting centres. In France 39.5% of all household rubbish is recycled and this figure is expected to rise by 10% due to the new law on energy transition. This is still a fair way away from what Germany has achieved: today Germany boasts a household waste recycling rate of 66.1%. Meanwhile California has a goal of achieving a 44% recycling rate. The Golden State set itself a daring target in 2011: 75% recycling, composting or source reduction of solid waste by 2020. To achieve this target, the Silicon Valley area authorities are counting on tech startups from the local area and further afield.



Turning waste into energy

Regard d'expert
 Thomas Buchegger

Cofounder of Wmoove

For some time now waste has been transformed into biogas. Numerous startups have got involved in this business and have been coming up with solutions for transforming waste into energy. London-based startup bio-bean  has entered into partnership with thousands of coffee shops across the UK to collect their used coffee grounds so as to turn them into bio-diesel fuel. Meanwhile the smart digester produced by Chinese company Enwise is sold to companies to enable them both to create fertiliser and generate power. Last but not least, Dusseldorf, Germany-based startup Wmoove with whom L’Atelier met up at the Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon, has recently developed its own technology. Explains Wmoove co-founder Thomas Buchegger: “we cannot tell you here about all our details but the basic process is that our powerplants heat up the waste until it seperates in some gaseous condition. It's important to know that we do not burn the waste. The gas is running a turbine / generator system which produces electricity.” The Wmoove approach differs in other ways from companies in the same sector. “We don’t transport waste across the country to large plants. We produce with small plants energy where it is needed and where waste occurs – for example directly from airports and shopping malls.” Companies can use these solutions to avoid paying to get rid of their waste and to obtain power and heat for their businesses.

The economic argument is often the most important one when it comes to convincing consumers or companies of the value of these methods of waste reduction and processing. Most of the startups we interviewed agree that the most difficult obstacle to surmount is very often people’s mindsets: it can be hard to change consumer behaviour. Getting technology accepted in the kitchen and getting people used to the idea of giving stuff away rather than throwing it out is not always easy.

Meanwhile government also has a role to play in raising awareness among citizens, implementing the necessary policies and financing the most promising initiatives. Technology can certainly be very useful when managing waste and it can, by extension, both improve people’s well-being and help to save the planet. But we also need to be careful that these solutions do not themselves become sources of pollution. When will we see technologies that make everything biodegradable, including the technology itself?

By Sophia Qadiri
Managing Editor & Journalist