4 million meals saved and counting: How the Karma app is tackling food waste

Humanity produces enough food to feed every single person on the planet, and yet millions go hungry everyday. This ironic statistic is largely due to the fact that one-third of all food produced goes to waste. The CO2 emitted due to this problem is equivalent to 3 million cars on the road, or in other words, four times more than all world flights combined. 

The folks at Sweden-based Karma have created a dent in this problem and saved over 4 million meals (so far) from going to the waste bin by creating a simple, effective solution: a food rescue app that allows retailers to sell their surplus food to consumers at half price – instead of having great food go to waste. On World Food Day, Ayushi speaks to co-founder and CEO, Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren, to know more about how the app has saved more than half million kilograms of food (roughly 2,200 tonnes of CO2), what food waste really is and his vision for the planet’s future.

Karma CEO Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren. Photo: Karma.life

Ayushi Shah (AS): Hjalmar, let’s go back to the early days. How did the company start?

Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren (HSN): Karma started off back in 2015 as a general deals platform. We realised early on that we needed to slim down to a specific vertical and that is when we observed restaurants uploading deals for surplus food at the end of the day. We started digging into this and found that one third of all food is wasted –  that is 1.5 billion tonnes a year. And at the same time, there’s food poverty in a lot of areas including wealthy countries where the problem is usually even bigger. When we realised not a lot of people were looking at solving this issue, we made it our mission: to be able to put a dent in this massive problem.

AS: So, how does one know what food should be discarded and what shouldn’t?

HSN: Food should be thrown away when it can no longer be consumed safely, which is probably either way past its best before date (which again is tricky because food often is good after that date), or when you can visibly, by the sense of smell or taste or touch say that this is no longer fit for consumption. And before that point, even if it looks weird, or is shaped the wrong way, or isn’t the right color, I think there are a myriad of ways you can utilize it. But given the cost of logistics and potential value of something that’s crooked, which is fairly low, producers think it’s just easier to pull them out of the ground and leave them or throw them away, rather than try to do something with them.

AS: You have expanded to other food waste solutions like the Karma Fridge and the Karma box. Could you tell me more about how they evolved?

HSN: Reselling surplus food doesn’t really change the fact that we overproduce. We have always wanted to get into these verticals at the right time. So we partnered up with Electrolux to create this aggressively pink fridge that makes it easier for supermarkets to handle large amounts of surplus without having to take the time to do the handouts. And customers pick up purchased items directly from the fridge without any input from store staff. It is currently in Sweden, UK and France. 

The Karma box delivers a fresh box of surplus produce (fruits and vegetables) each week. It’s appalling that if you go into a grocery store, you see how uniform everything is in the fruit and vegetable counter, with a size variation of 10% maximum and you have a color variation that is like minimal. We found that a lot of things are being thrown away because they’re a bit bent or crooked or not the right color, but it’s the exact same vegetable or fruit! We started the Karma boxes when the pandemic hit, and the response has been great. 

AS:  Changing perceptions is a big part of what Karma does. After all, like you said tonnes of perfectly fine food goes to waste for multiple reasons including it not looking good enough. How does Karma tackle this issue of perception?

HSN: It’s both ways. The perception from the producers is that this is food waste because that is the way it has always been. While I don’t think anyone wants it to be food waste, focus is always on profit and producing more rather than making sure that the things we produce are consumed

From the consumer standpoint, food waste has a bad sound to it. Food waste for most people is the watery salad somewhere in the fridge. But the cool thing is that once food has been saved with Karma, we usually get comments like “Oh, I didn’t think it would be like this kind of quality”, because people rarely assume that the food waste you rescue from a retailer, is food that was likely produced today but they have no capacity to store it overnight.

AS: Could you elaborate on other reasons restaurants or supermarkets create this surplus that then counts as ‘food waste’.

HSN: The fact that how much will be consumed is very, very difficult to predict whether it is a restaurant or a grocery store. On a consumer level, not planning meals often leads to food going waste.

AS: Is it always difficult to ensure that every single process of what you do is completely environmentally friendly. Like packaging?

HSN: You’re going to have to pick your battles if you want to be a mainstream gold-standard solution to food waste. For example, the environmental impact of the times we’ve flown back and forth to the UK for expansion is miniscule to the number of meals we’ve saved. Similarly, if we wouldn’t have started Karma, there would probably have been less packages handed out with takeaway surplus food, but there would also be 4 million meals less saved. So the CO2 footprint would have been bigger. I think, as long as you do that math, and you’re on the right side, and obviously by a landslide, you’re doing the right thing.

A restaurant shares surplus food to a customer through the Karma app. Photo: Karma.life
Karma Founders (anti-clockwise): Elsa Bernadotte, Ludvig Berling, Mattis Larsson and Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren. Photo: Karma.life

AS: Can sustainability and profitability go hand in hand?

HSN: I think that the organizations that are profitable are the ones that have an ability to scale all across the globe. Reinvesting the profits to reach further helps with the drive to becoming a global solution to a problem rather than a very local one. I think a lot of people have an aversion to profitable companies, because that’s equal to capitalism that can never be environmentalism. I think that is a shame because if done right, you can definitely have capitalism and environmentalism in one bucket. And I think, personally, I think it’s the only way to truly solve the problem.

AS: I agree. So what is the magnitude of the problem?

HSN: The food industry is responsible for about 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions (aviation is only 2%). 25% of the world’s freshwater is used to grow food that’s never eaten

If we were able to salvage just 10% of the food that’s wasted in the US, EU and UK alone, it would be enough to feed the 1 billion people living in food poverty, or under food insecurity. This  speaks about the gravity of the problem. 

AS: Why is Karma the right solution?

HSN: We know that reselling surplus is just a short-term win. The data we have collected by asking our stakeholders to upload surplus on a per item basis helps us identify what is being wasted, when and where, and what is our chance to rescue it. Backing up the chain helps us predict and prevent the surplus from even existing.

AS: That’s amazing. But isn’t this a conflict of interest to your own business?

HSN:  You might think so. But the problem is so big that even if we can predict 50% of the surplus, we’re still talking about 750 million tonnes of food thrown away every year. So if that would ever happen, then we would happily become the prediction and prevention platform.

AS: Does the team often order from Karma? 

HSN: Yeah, it’s amazing and fun. We usually compare what we’ve saved.

AS: What are the future plans for the company?

HSN: We are here as long as the problem is or until there is nothing more we can do about it. We want to get to a scale where it’s indisputable that we’re the gold standard for fighting food waste. 

AS: Lastly, any pointers for people to reduce their own food waste?

HSN: Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of food waste tips and tricks. 

  1. For fruit that goes bad quickly – just chop it up, put it in the freezer, and you can use it for smoothies later.
  2. I found this chef who would slice old lemons, chop them up and put it in the freezer. You can then just use them as ice cubes.
  3. You can mix old berries with chia seeds and leave them in the refrigerator. It basically becomes a jam and is pretty easy to do.
  4. Someone here at the office dipped banana peel in water overnight. As they’re very rich in potassium, you can use that water to water plants. 
  5. Lastly, try to take care of your own production and consumption. If you can plan your meals two-three days in advance, you can avoid what my friend Selena calls UFO – an unidentified frozen object, which is something you put it in the freezer, pull it out six months later only to realise it has gone bad.
I'm Ayushi Shah and I co-founded Eco-Spotlight to tell stories of green innovation and remind the world (and myself) that there is hope for humanity and the planet. Reach out to me at ayushi (at) eco-spotlight (dot) com

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