For years, journalist Liz Thomas horrified her friends when she would ask for a doggy bag, or present her own box, to take home leftovers from restaurants.

Some would groan, bury their face in their hands, or adopt mild look of horror, as if she had asked the waiters to do something really strange.

“Their reactions got me thinking how normal it has become to throw out perfectly good food,” Thomas told HKFP.

File photo: Flickr/Sporkist.

Thinking about the food waste problem led Thomas, her husband Florent Sollier, and their friend Adrien Hay to launch Food Savior this week. The platform allows consumers to buy perfectly edible food that restaurants have not served up, and is left over from the end of each service. The food would otherwise be thrown out.

“Larger restaurant groups often work with food redistribution charities, but many small and medium firms have told us it is not always viable for them, and for many the cheapest thing to do is just to throw unsold dishes away,” Thomas said.

She describes Food Savior as essentially a digital version of the clearance section of the supermarket.

“So we came up with something that incentivises people to curb waste because restaurants get to make money on food they might otherwise have thrown away, and customers get great food for less. Something that’s good for everyone – but especially the planet.”

After restaurants sign up for the platform, they can list the dishes they have left from each service, and customers can walk in to collect them during a pickup window set by the restaurant. Businesses set their own prices, but the platform encourages them to apply an 80 per cent discount on dishes, and it takes a 10 per cent cut of sales to cover costs.

A dish from participating business Gymbox. Photo: Food Savior.

Because restaurants are actively listing the surplus dishes they have available throughout the day, customers can see what is available in real time, and integrate the service into their busy lifestyles.

“If you’re feeling hungry, on a break, or heading home then just input your location and see what is available at that time. We wanted to come up with a solution that is as flexible as possible,” Sollier said.

See also: Hong Kong’s over-packaging problem: Supermarkets are not the only ones who need to change

According to the latest government statistics, 3,382 tonnes of food waste were dumped into landfills per day in 2015, enough to fill six Airbus 380 planes – the largest passenger aircraft in the world – at maximum takeoff weight. This means that 0.46 kilograms were thrown out for every person in Hong Kong each day.

“We are a city of big eaters, and often eating out is cheaper and easier than cooking in tiny kitchens at home,” Thomas said. “But this can lead to over-ordering and wastefulness. Plus many restaurants don’t like to tell diners they have sold out of dishes, so instead they prepare too much.”

“Similarly, there are endless buffets and free flow brunch deals, plates piled high, mountains of food continually replenished, and there is always plenty left towards the end of the sitting. I started to wonder what happened to all the surplus – the realization that much of it was thrown away was grotesque but made us want to do something.”

An oyster-shelling station at a buffet.

Though there are only 20 restaurants on the website so far, the co-founders say they have had enthusiastic responses from local foodies and restaurants, with new places signing up each week.

Taco chain Cali-Mex has already registered, with multiple locations listed on the site, as has swanky Hollywood Road Italian joint 208 Duecento Otto and French pastry shop Tartes & Pop.

“[W]e’ve also had people thinking really creatively about [how] they can work with Food Savior – La Cabane a Vin is listing their delicious cheeses, while Spicebox Organics has items from their cafe, but also items they sell in their stores that are nearing their best before date,” Hay said.

The founders are working to get as many establishments on board as possible, and are meeting with fluent Cantonese speakers this week to help them engage local Chinese restaurants. They also encourage restaurants to give discounts and special offers to customers who bring their own containers.

Products from La Cabane and Spicebox Organics. Photos: Food Savior.

The three who started the social enterprise are a journalist, a business analyst and a project manager working in finance. They have no other staff and started the project in their free time, working in the evenings and sometimes into the night on the project.

“It has been an exhausting nine months but we hope this baby will make a real difference to Hong Kong’s food waste problem, not just in terms of people using the site, but also just getting people to think differently about how they consume,” co-founder Hay said.

Thomas knows from personal experience that getting people thinking through small actions can make a difference – she says her friends have become used to her ‘waste not, want not’ attitude, and some have even started bagging leftovers themselves. Restaurants will sometimes even give her special treats or extra sides for bringing her own container to put leftovers in.

“We are not presenting this as the sole solution to cutting food waste in the city but we think Food Savior has an important part to play… Our solution is one where people are essentially rewarded for doing the right thing – a carrot to curb food waste.”

Correction 07/03: A previous version of piece made reference to La Cabane Food & Wine Cellar – the restaurant’s name is in fact La Cabane a Vin.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.