From food redistribution and hotel soap recycling to by-product-sourced beauty products, we talk to young social entrepreneurs who have taken the concept of circularity and created solutions that minimise waste and maximise resource reuse and recycling. Phil Lattimore reports.
Launched in 2013 by founders Iseult Ward (left, above) and Aoibheann O’Brien (right, above), FoodCloud is a non-profit social enterprise, based in Ireland, that has created surplus food redistribution solutions, offering an alternative to throwing away food.
In Ireland, more than 500 supermarkets upload details of their excess food to the platform so local charities can be notified to collect it daily. FoodCloud’s warehouse solution also redistributes surplus food from the supply chain to charities.
In the UK, FoodCloud works in partnership with food redistribution NGO FareShare to connect more than 2,900 stores directly with local charities across the country. Its technology is also being used across food banks worldwide.
Iseult Ward, CEO and co-founder, FoodCloud, explains…
I was studying business and economics at Trinity College Dublin when I felt I could apply what I was learning to an enterprise that could have a positive social and environmental impact. I went to an event organised by Enactus, where I met my co-founder, Aoibheann O’Brien, a postgraduate student completing a Master’s in environmental science.
She had been working in London and seen initiatives around redistribution of food, but nothing was happening in Ireland, so we decided we should do something about food waste. I had never understood why food was going to waste, particularly when there were so many people who couldn’t access enough. It just seemed crazy.
For about a year and half, we worked on FoodCloud part-time, speaking to food businesses, non-profit organisations, food-safety bodies and relevant stakeholders. After a small trial, we realised a partnership with a supermarket would be the most effective way to create a sustainable and scalable solution.
We started approaching all major retailers in Ireland; we were lucky we found somebody at Tesco Ireland who was willing to let us try it out in one store in Dublin city centre. We expanded the trial in 2013 and, six months later, signed a contract for Tesco to roll it out to all of its Ireland stores. Having its name behind us helped us get credibility, funding and other retailers onboard.
Our software platform allowed us to scale up the redistribution of food without the infrastructure, warehousing and logistics experience – or the related capital – that a traditional food-banking model might require. This would have been a huge barrier to us.
FoodCloud streamlines communication between the stores that say ‘we have food and it’s available at this time’, and the charities that say ‘we’re coming to get it’.
Our software platform allowed us to scale up the redistribution of food without the infrastructure, warehousing and logistics experience – or the related capital – that a traditional food-banking model might require.
By the end of 2014, we were approached by Tesco UK. We already had a relationship with FareShare in the UK. While we thought we were trying to catch up with the rest of the world, we didn’t realise we had created something that would be valuable outside Ireland, too. We quickly saw that our solution could be valuable to organisations such as FareShare, because accessing more perishable food that goes to waste in a supermarket is difficult when you’re relying on warehousing and logistics. You don’t have the time to collect it, store it and get it to a charity. Developing a platform that creates an easy way of connecting charities directly to local stores was a unique solution internationally.
We’re now part of a global food-redistribution community, working alongside FareShare and other organisations – and we were able to learn from them when we set up the more traditional warehouse-based hub model in Ireland.
Surplus food redistribution is a win-win for people and our planet, and offers an opportunity to build a better, more sustainable and food-secure future for us all. By donating their surplus food, businesses are helping us in our vision of a world where no good food goes to waste, while working towards Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 of halving global food waste by 2030.
We still have an opportunity to increase the amount of food we’re redistributing, and we have an ongoing partnership with Allied Irish Banks that will allow us to continue to scale our existing operations. A big focus in Ireland will be to grow existing solutions, and develop innovative ones, and understand how we can access more surplus food.
As a member of the European Food Banks Federation, we’re connected to the global network, and we see an opportunity to share our technology with our international counterparts. Waste as a concept can’t exist anymore – we need to change our attitude to how we deal with not only food, but also all our consumption choices. This is going to be a long and challenging journey.
The conversation surrounding circularity and the circular economy needs to become more mainstream and accessible, and people need to understand what it means and what a vision for the future looks like in a truly circular economy. Food can play a critical role, because everybody can understand its value, and see it as something organic that can be transformed.
The more social and environmental start-ups and entrepreneurs we see, the more people will be inspired to take action. People will be looking for inspiration when we come to the end of Covid-19, so now is a good moment for social enterprises and the circular economy.
Based in Pittsburgh, USA, 28-year-old Samir Lakhani is executive director and founder of Eco-Soap Bank, a non-profit organisation that uses waste soap from hotels and manufacturers to give schoolchildren in developing countries sanitised, reprocessed soap to improve hygiene and health. He has a degree in environmental science and received a CNN Heroes Award for Eco-Soap Bank in 2017 and a Unilever Young Entrepreneurs award in 2018.
Samir Lakhani, executive director and founder, Eco-Soap Bank, explains…
Eco-Soap Bank was founded in a single moment. I was doing climate-change research in northern Cambodia in 2014, and saw a village woman bathing her child with laundry detergent powder. Immediately, I knew I wanted to address what I could see was a widespread hygiene problem.
I decided to find a sustainable way to provide schools and families like hers with ongoing supplies of soap. I was not interested in procuring soap from China or Vietnam and shipping it into rural northern Cambodia; I wanted to find an environmentally sustainable product or process that didn’t increase the environmental footprint.
This immediately led me to hotel soap waste: an estimated five million bars per day are thrown away. We ran with this idea for four or five years, and now work with NGOs in 10 countries, recycling leftover soap from around 1,200 hotels.
Since I was a kid, I have had one obsession: how to blend humanitarian and environmental interventions? Before this project, I was in Cambodia helping farmers create climate-resistant/resilient agricultural and fish-farming solutions – and, before that, I was involved in a small solar-lamp project in Nepal, enabling young girls to study into the night.
Since I was a kid, I have had one obsession: how to blend humanitarian and environmental interventions?
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, we needed to find a new source of raw material. One benefit of our model is that we create jobs for undereducated and disabled women in the 10 countries in which we work; we currently employ 154 people. To provide the soap these women needed to recycle and redistribute, we looked to manufacturing – the top of the supply chain – and found an estimated 25,000 tonnes of virgin soap waste was produced per year. This comes in different forms – pellets, chips, dust. We collect as much as we can and process it into bars of soap, which are redistributed to children in schools, primarily via international NGOs. We estimate we will recycle 1,000 tonnes in 2021.
We work with the UN World Food Programme in Cambodia, which provides soap to 250,000 children every year, and with other NGOs, including World Vision and Oxfam. Now we’re looking to grow this collaboration on a global scale. The vast majority of our supply comes from North America, though we’re trying to raise awareness of our recycling solution so more manufacturers can participate in India, South East Asia and Africa. We work with third-party manufacturing contractors mostly, but we’d like to get the major fast-moving consumer goods companies onboard. We also work with hotel chains, such as Marriott, Hilton and Four Seasons.
I would love to see more awareness of this kind of waste stream and product, and of our non-profit solution that creates jobs for women and reaches children that had never previously seen a bar of soap. I would also like the public to encourage soap manufacturers globally to participate in this life-saving intervention.
While there is a lot of focus on post-consumer circular initiatives, it’s important to raise awareness of pre-consumer waste and circular initiatives – there’s a lot more pre-consumer waste of which we are unaware.
At the start of the pandemic, we put soap in every health clinic, hospital and quarantine facility in Cambodia. We’ve reached almost four million children with soap and hygiene education. But my proudest achievement is that we create gainful employment for many women.
I would encourage manufacturers to conceptualise this economic implication for their waste – that it can create a livelihood and opportunity for a person and their family.
Founded in 2016 by siblings Anna and William Brightman, UpCircle uses by-products from other industries – particularly the food and drinks sector – to create sustainable, natural and organic beauty products.
Anna Brightman, co-founder, UpCircle, explains…
UpCircle was founded by my brother, William, and me in 2016. We wanted to start a business with a purpose beyond profit; one that leaves the world better than we found it.
It all started about four years ago, when William asked his local coffee shop what they did with their used coffee grounds. He was shocked to hear they paid the council to have it removed and disposed of in landfill. He decided it was a great starting point for a business idea, but wasn’t sure what this idea was – that’s where I came in.
Throughout my teenage years, I wanted to be a make-up artist, so always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, so why not repurpose it into sustainable circular skincare products? We began collecting coffee grounds from one shop; we now collect from 100 across London – our list is always growing. We’ve saved more than 320 tonnes of coffee. We also rescue and reuse ingredients from the argan, tea, juice, date, olive and wood industries.
Our products are natural, organic, vegan, cruelty-free, palm oil-free, sustainable, handmade in the UK, and housed in 100 per cent recyclable packaging. But the key point of difference between us and other brands is that each product is made with a core repurposed ingredient. No other beauty brand is doing what we do – we are pioneering the by-product beauty movement.
The circular movement is still in its infancy, but growing fast. It is an exciting space in which to be operating.
Every decision we make is about minimising the impact we have on our planet. Our ethos is centred on keeping things that we’ve already produced in use as long as possible, and moving towards a circular – rather than linear – economy. Preserving resources is our primary goal. Every ingredient we upcycle has to benefit everyone involved, and it’s important for us to make use of every part of any plant we choose to grow.
Aside from the obvious waste-saving benefits of using by-products, the circular economy forms links between industries. Our ingredients come from a variety of sources, including the food and drinks, wood, and floristry industries. The provenance of each product is unique – for example, we upcycle date seeds, sourced from Israel, into our body cream. The seeds are usually discarded so, by making use of them, we provide a new revenue source for the growers.
Now that we’ve made a name for ourselves as the skincare brand bringing the circular economy to the beauty industry, we have businesses and individuals coming to us with their leftover natural ingredients, asking if we can cook up a circular skincare solution. We’re always ready to take on the challenge. We’re highly motivated to continue sourcing varied ingredients that are thrown away prematurely.
We were told by many mentors and investors that the beauty industry was not ready to embrace a circular economy ethos like ours; tackling issues of waste in the beauty industry is no easy task. It’s been encouraging to see more and more businesses cropping up over the past five years that have a circular model.
The world has finite resources and we are depleting them at a scary rate. Businesses that extend the life-cycle of things already in circulation, or that find ways to reimagine something previously seen as being at the end of its service life, are the future.
The circular movement is still in its infancy, but growing fast. It is an exciting space in which to be operating. Think: it is only waste once it is wasted. Once we stop seeing things as waste, but rather as resources, the status quo will change quickly.
This article first appeared in the Jan / Feb issue of Circular.