‘Sweden still has a problem when it comes to cutting down on food waste’

Sweden is known for its unique food and progressive eco-friendly culture. Australian native Cathy Xiao Chen combined the two after moving to Uppsala three years ago.

'Sweden still has a problem when it comes to cutting down on food waste'
Entrepreneur Cathy Xiao Chen. Photo: Private

“We should think of ourselves as stewards of the Earth and everything that comes with it,” Chen explains when asked what 'food sustainability' actually means. The term is commonly known, however is more dense than it sounds. It encompasses everything from, in Chen's own words, “taking care of the environment by making sure that we use our resources efficiently and responsibly” to “limiting over-consumption and waste”.

Chen was first introduced to food sustainability when working at a 100 percent organic restaurant in Sydney. Describing it as a place she could call home, it was this restaurant which sparked her interest in eco-friendly food, guiding her to Uppsala University in 2013 where she received her degree in food sustainability.

“I took the money and ran,” she jokes.

She is today the co-founder of 'Smaka Lokal' (directly translated as 'Taste Local'), a startup promoting food sustainability in Uppsala, Sweden. Its premise surrounds one major problem which threatens not only sustainability in Sweden, but sustainability for the whole world.

“When food gets thrown away, its not just the resources that go into producing the food that are going to waste, it's also all of the additional resources that are used when you are transporting, processing it into something else, and then taking that product back,” Chen explains.

Chen argues that the serious problem of overconsumption in the 21st century results in an “epidemic of overweight and obesity around the world”.

Overconsumption is so severe that even the notoriously eco-friendly Sweden can't escape from it. Every month, Stockholm alone collects nearly 100,000 kilogram of food waste.

“We [Sweden] still have a problem when it comes to cutting down on food waste. (…) If we simply stop wasting food – which my current estimate is about one third of everything that we eat – we would have lot less of a problem.”

That's exactly what Chen set out to do. Smaka Lokal is a food distributor like no other with the motto “more food, less waste”. The company is based on an app which advertises excess food to consumers directly, provided by restaurants, cafés and local retailers.

“Since restaurants always have to overproduce to provide for an unknown amount of customers, they have more food than they're going to sell. On our app, these restaurants can take pictures of the left-over food and then consumers can buy it at a discounted price.”

Instead of creating their own infrastructure system, Smaka Lokal uses Uppsala's present resources in order to be altogether environmentally friendly. “We thought: why not make it a takeaway system? That would make the most sense since it makes the best use of the pre-existing transport system and doesn't make waste,” says Chen.

The idea has extended over the whole of Uppsala. “We really reduce the amount of waste and assess the amount of food that actually needs to be produced.”

Food waste being composted in Stockholm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Swedish cities are regularly touted as some of the most eco-friendly in Europe, and being located in the university town of Uppsala is nothing short of an advantage in regards to food sustainability. Chen says that “the awareness is definitely there. Second-hand shopping is really popular here, and lots of people recycle or drive hybrid cars, which is something you don't find a lot of in other countries”.

Chen and her team are proof that creating a successful and innovative business in Sweden which encapsulates its culture doesn't necessarily require Swedish roots. “I'm a permanent resident now, but in no way Swedish,” Chen laughs. In addition, her team at Smaka Lokal is completely international, composed of an Iranian co-founder living in Hong Kong, a London-based graphic designer, and finally a Russian-Syrian entrepreneur. “We get quite a global perspective, which is quite beneficial,” she explains. “The language barrier isn't so much of an issue.”

However, Chen's success doesn't come easy. Her personal business-method is “quite challenging”, as it requires a lot of travelling around Uppsala and face-to-face time with the clients. Chen advises other startups too to “try and meet people on their own terms. Building up your network, going to places where you know the right people are going to be, building up friendships – that really helps”.

Currently, Smaka Lokal is only available for businesses to advertise their food. However, just because you can't advertise your food doesn't mean you can't contribute to a more sustainable food environment, especially on the back of the year's biggest holidays.

“There are so many homeless people and refugees that don't have all the access to resources that we would otherwise want them to have. It would be great if people tried to donate some of their food to people who are hungry.”

Chen's ambition doesn't just stop in Uppsala. In the future, she wants to expand her business to nearby Stockholm – and even further. “I have a lot of plans,” she says. “If we were to become billionaires overnight, we could put more money into researching more sustainable takeaway systems for example… there are so many initiatives for agricultural production.”

“We are currently looking for businesses to come on board in Uppsala. If anybody knows a business that would like to promote their sustainability profile and are willing to try something new and to make their business more environmentally friendly, then we would love to talk to them.”

This article was written by The Local's intern Tilly Olsson.


My Swedish Career: ‘What I have found here is that the key to life is free time’

Federico Micolucci is a modern-day Venetian renaissance man, combining scientific research in water treatment at Gothenburg University with a second career as a techno DJ and label owner.

My Swedish Career: 'What I have found here is that the key to life is free time'

Micolucci arrived in Sweden four years ago, when he won a post-doc position at Lund University researching energy-efficient water treatment technologies, and for the last two years, he has been commuting weekly to Gothenburg University, where he is further developing experimental methods to clean the water supply, using membrane filtration and activated carbon to remove pharmaceuticals and other harmful contaminants.

But Micolucci has for more than 12 years had a second life as an established techno DJ, and in Sweden he has somehow also found the time to spin records at raves and various clubs around Malmö, where he currently lives, creating his own music on a label (Eight of Cups) he founded with a fellow foreigner Gregory Vartian-Foss.

“On a creative level, this town is unique, golden,” he says of Malmö. “There’s real, dynamic energy in the arts scene, and you notice more and more that it is being recognised – internationally, even.” 

He met Vartian-Foss, a professional bass player with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra who comes from Los Angeles, three years ago, and they soon started bonding over a passion for rare Italo disco records. 

In their most recent project, they formed a trio with the Swedish multi-instrumentalist and singer Miranda Gjerstad, covering a rare, nearly forgotten gem of Italo disco, which they have reissued on vinyl, alongside their own cover version.

Vartian-Foss now creates his music in a shared studio in the growing creative haven of Norra Grängesbergsgatan, he previously produced his tracks at the arts and music venue, Inkonst, and he regularly performs alongside Gregory as resident DJ at Plan B – a frequently packed Malmö concert and club institution.

Federico Federico Micolucci examines a hollow fiber membrane. Photo: Private

At the same time, Micolucci’s research has been developing at a fast pace. He recently took over operations at an innovative waste-water treatment plant in Helsingborg, and this winter, he won the prestigious Marie-Curie fellowship for postdoctoral scientific research.

Micolucci has been impressed by the extent to which his Swedish fellow researchers and mentors have gone out of their way to make him feel comfortable in academic life.

“Generally speaking, the feeling I got from Swedish society was that people are polite, thoughtful, and seem to avoid prejudging. At the same time, it was a bit challenging as everyone started to push me (in a positive way, I might add) to listen to, speak, and immerse myself in the Swedish language.”

His experience of academia in Denmark and at home in Italy has shown him that the sector is marked by stiff competition, something he believes can be positive if helps drive innovation. In this Sweden is no exception, he says, with the main difference being the level of conflict avoidance. 

“Swedes are uncomfortable confronting people when something goes wrong,” he believes. “They try to keep a positive work environment, which is great – but this can sometimes lead to mistakes going uncorrected and unresolved misunderstandings. I don’t want to sound overly judgemental, but I think it’s just a stark difference from Italian society, in which people can be pretty direct and sometimes confrontational.”

Federico Micolucci in his day job as a scientist. Photo: Private

Federico’s eyes light up when talking about his new job in Helsingborg.

Part of Helsingborg’s urban renewal district, Oceanhamnen, the operational plant and research site is the world’s first full-scale filtration system of its kind.

“It’s the best job I have ever had,” he says. “My Swedish colleagues are supportive, welcoming every day, and positive in a real way. They encourage employees to be comfortable and maintain a good work-life balance. At the same time, they believe in making strides in research and finding solutions to improve the ways in which we interface with the environment. It’s a great feeling. Rarely before, did I wake up every day feeling good about going to work.” 

Micolucci still misses his native Italy, which he describes as “the most beautiful country in the world, taking into account the combination of landscapes, architecture, and food”, but he makes do with keeping in touch with friends and family in Venice on the phone, and making regular trips back home. 

“It’s harder to live there and much more stressful from a working perspective,” he says. “What I have found here in Sweden is that the key to life is free time. Sure, work is important, but it can’t always be the priority in life, and many companies, at least in my field, understand this. I’m able to develop my passions and spend time with my beloved friends, doing what I love – much more than would be possible back home. “