The Irish innovators redirecting unwanted food to the needy and helping businesses slash the amount they throw away tell their story
Every day at a huge warehouse in Tallaght, FoodCloud workers unload crates of produce that would have otherwise been binned.
It’s one of three Irish depots used by the social enterprise to sort through food donations from businesses before they are matched with charities. All kinds of things arrive in vans from early in the morning — pallets of fruit and veg, bags of potatoes, packets upon packets of pasta, rice and soup.
Along with hubs in Galway and Cork, FoodCloud’s Dublin storage centre is part of a distribution network that rescues thousands of tons of food a year. Large quantities are processed through the warehouses, while the organisation’s app allows charities to collect directly with retailers. It estimates that over 140 million meals have been saved since it was established in 2013.
Co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien could have never imagined the current scale of the operation when they picked up their first donation as students a decade ago. In their inaugural delivery run, a box of food from a farmers’ market in Glasnevin was handed over to Don Bosco Care, a charity that supports vulnerable young people. A number of other partners came on board, but they soon found themselves struggling to obtain enough food.
The turning point came when the pair were offered an in-store pilot in Tesco on Talbot Street in Dublin, which led to a nationwide partnership with the retailer in 2014. Today, FoodCloud technology facilitates food distribution in the UK, Czechia and Slovakia as well as Ireland. It works with more than 600 charities and community groups in this country alone.
Ward has noticed a significant change in attitudes about food waste. “There wasn’t much awareness of the social and environmental impact when we started FoodCloud,” she says. “If you threw away food as a retailer or at home, it was seen more so as a financial loss. We did need to communicate to businesses that this isn’t just an economic problem.”
She says companies are also now conscious that good environmental practice is important for securing investment. “Food donation would have usually been considered a CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiative first and foremost, rather than an opportunity to be more environmentally friendly. I think the increasing emphasis put on environmental responsibility by the financial industry means that businesses have learned to look at waste in a different way.”
The need for change is clear, but it’s no small task. Worldwide, food waste is responsible for around 10pc of greenhouse gas emissions, making it an even bigger contributor to climate change than aviation.
More than a quarter of food is wasted through the global supply chain, from farming and manufacturing to individual households.
Ireland generates 1.2 million tons of food waste a year, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About 45pc of that comes from processing and manufacturing, with the commercial sector, including restaurants and retailers, accounting for 32pc.
Households are responsible for 23pc — about 250,000 tons a year, which amounts to 150kg of waste per household. The average household discards about €700 worth of food a year.
FoodCloud is one of a growing number of technology-driven enterprises working to tackle the problem. Another popular app is Too Good To Go, where customers can buy “surprise bags” of leftover food at heavily discounted prices from restaurants, cafés and supermarkets. The app, which is available across Europe and North America, has gained more than 150,000 registered users in Ireland since launching here in October 2021. Hundreds of businesses have also signed up, including Fresh, Spar, KC Peaches and Applegreen.
Food waste reduction is needed to fight climate change, but for a lot of retailers the money saved is still a big motivation. Jamie Crummie, co-founder of Too Good To Go, sees the platform as a safety net for food outlets in uncertain times.
“Businesses are finding it hard to predict what footfall is going to be like on a given day or week,” he says. “The feedback we’re getting from our partners is that this is allowing them to avoid a lot of sunk costs. They’re spending less money on waste collection, but they’re also making money from food that would have been thrown out at the end of the day.”
Other ventures encourage volunteers to collect surplus food and distribute it themselves.
Olio, a food-sharing app also launched in Ireland last year, has a partnership with Tesco that allows users to pick up food that can’t be donated to charities. Volunteers take the items home with them and then list them on the app for collection. Listings in Rathmines on Wednesday night included baguettes, chicken wraps, doughnuts and bacon rashers.
The app has been commended by many users, but it’s not without its drawbacks. Some have expressed frustration that volunteers are left having to dispose of food themselves if it’s not requested, shifting responsibility away from large retail companies.
Caitlin Weich, who blogs about sustainability under the name Wasteless Wanderess, is a regular user in Dublin, but she has pointed out that these initiatives fail to address the problem of overproduction.
As she wrote earlier this year: “Instead of Tesco and other partnering companies needing to swallow the cost of disposing of their waste — either to biogas energy generation initiatives or to industrial composting facilities — they now give their waste to ‘Olio Food Waste Heroes’. These people are volunteers, who take on Tesco’s waste and do the work to distribute that food that Tesco has bought and failed to distribute.
“A multimillion-euro company gets to avoid the consequences of their overproduction-based system, and give themselves a pat on the back for doing so because they ‘avoided’ food waste.”
Weich argues that corporate responsibility has to involve preventing waste being created in the first place. “I get at least one huge bag of fresh pastries in every single Olio collection,” she wrote in the blog post. “So, why do [retailers] keep making way more than they can sell? They do this because having nice full shelves with lots to choose from is a selling point for them. It makes them money. Showing the bounty of products that people can buy, showing that you will never need to go to a different shop because all the shelves are always full adds value to their offering. It makes more people go there and hand over their cash.”
Still, platforms like Olio are helping to change our perceptions about waste — and particularly the notion of best-before labels as a marker of food safety.
EPA research shows that more than half of Irish consumers throw out food because it has passed its best-before date. SuperValu and Marks & Spencer recently removed best-before dates from some fruit and veg to reduce waste. The move has been supported by Safefood, which says food gone beyond its best-before date is perfectly safe to eat, even if it has begun to lose some of its flavour and texture. However, products do need to be consumed before their use-by date to avoid health risks.
Positive Carbon, a Roscommon-based start-up, takes a different approach. The Enterprise Ireland-backed company, which was founded in 2020 by former FoodCloud staffers Mark and Aisling Kirwan, provides waste monitoring scanners to commercial kitchens across the country. Its technology uses artificial intelligence and laser sensors to track everything put in kitchen bins, giving restaurants and hotels a clearer picture of their waste habits. The data allows businesses to tweak purchasing and preparation habits, resulting in less food being discarded.
Positive Carbon’s partners include major catering firms such as KSG and Gather & Gather, as well as food providers in universities and hotels.
Mark Kirwan, a software developer, says food service businesses rarely keep tabs on what’s thrown out — a missed opportunity given that about 60pc of food waste in the sector is classed as avoidable, according to the EPA. “Supermarkets will always monitor what’s coming in and leaving, but the food service industry usually has little to no data on these things,” he says.
One participating hotel recently noticed that their pizzas were only being half eaten, with large portions usually ending up in kitchen bins. It now makes them smaller, in a measure it hopes will help decrease waste. Another restaurant reduced its number of fish orders after finding that large amounts were being discarded every week, saving them thousands of euro in the process.
Positive Carbon has secured investment from APX, a German venture capital firm backed by Porsche and the media conglomerate Axel Springer, as well as Austrian investment company Gateway Ventures. It plans to move into the European market, initially focusing on Germany, Austria and Italy.
FoodCloud also has eyes on expansion. The enterprise was recently awarded Irish Aid funding to carry out a pilot study in Africa, working with the Global Food Banking Network.
It will be looking at four countries — Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana — that have been identified as potentially suitable, and then selecting one for a pilot.
“There are food banks in these countries that are doing great work, but this kind of technology could be a great added support for them,” Ward says. “It’s a brilliant opportunity to share what we’ve built and developed here in Ireland.”
She is conscious, though, that food insecurity is a problem in Ireland as well. “Many of our charity partners here are starting to see an increase in demand for their services as a result of the increased cost of living,” she says. “It’s a trend we expect might increase in the next few months, particularly coming into winter.”
The growing need for food donations speaks to a sad new reality for many — something that can’t be forgotten, she says, amid all the celebration of new milestones.