Apps turning restaurant leftovers into cheap meals take off in Asia

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) – With a tantalising array of satay chicken, wok-fried mud crab and chilled tiger prawns, the dinner buffet at Singapore’s Grand Hyatt hotel typically sets diners back about US$70 (S$96).

But those on a tighter budget and with an eye on sustainability can fill a box for a 10th of that price.

Across Asia, tech start-ups are taking food otherwise destined for landfills and providing discounted meals through mobile phone apps.

About a third of food is lost or wasted every year globally, and the mountains of waste are estimated to cause 8 per cent to 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions such as methane, the United Nations says. The Asia-Pacific region is among the worst in the world when it come to food waste, accounting for more than half of food squandered globally.

“A common mantra that I have is that being sustainable should be attainable,” said Mr Preston Wong, chief executive officer and co-founder of treatsure, which collaborates with chains, including the Accor group and Hyatt Hotels, and the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel to allow app users to pick out and collect a “buffet-in-a-box” of food that would otherwise be thrown out.

“I think technology can bridge that gap,” he said.

With more than 30,000 users, treatsure has saved an estimated 30 tonnes of food from going to waste since it launched in 2017, with users typically having to wait until the end of service before they can collect their food, according to Mr Wong.

Still, that is a far cry from the 817,000 tonnes of food waste in Singapore in 2021, a 23 per cent increase from the year prior. The authorities say Singapore’s only landfill, Semakau Landfill, is expected to meet the country’s solid waste disposal needs up to 2035 and beyond.

Hong Kong faces similar problems. It has already filled up 13 landfills, and about 3,300 tonnes of food waste a day were dumped in its remaining sites in 2020, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Department.

“The space is very limited,” said Ms Anne-Claire Beraud, country manager for Phenix by OnTheList, an app launched in the territory last year. “Everything is very dense, so there isn’t a lot of space to treat all this waste.”

The app allows users to pick up a “Mystery Basket” of food at stores, including Pret A Manger and local cake shop The Cakery, for a minimum 50 per cent discount.

So far, it has sold 25,000 baskets, with each equating to about 1kg of food saved from going to waste and 4.5kg of CO2 emissions avoided, the company said.

Phenix’s original platform was launched in France in 2014 and expanded to four other European countries where it has saved 150 million meals. It collaborated with OnTheList, a flash-sale company, to bring the app to Asia.

The concept of food sustainability is still in its infancy in Asia, compared with North America and Europe where the authorities are cracking down. France has already banned supermarkets from throwing away unsold food, and Spain recently drafted legislation to tackle waste by fining companies. American states including California and New Jersey have laws to reduce the amount of food going to landfills.