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Taking Action Against Single-Use Food Packaging Waste: The Cauli Story.

Author: Natalia Vasnier

Have you ever been to a street-food market and wondered what to do with your single use food container? Should I recycle it? How do I recycle it? Or being surprised by the overbearing number of rubbish in the bins?


In the UK, single-use plastics are omnipresent in our day-to-day life. Of all the recyclable single use plastics, only 10% is actually recycled. That is why the UK government banned single-use plastic packaging in October 2023. This new legislation means that businesses are no longer allowed to use polystyrene food packaging and plastic cutlery, rather they must shift to eco-friendly alternatives.

That’s where Cauli comes in. The Cauli journey started with Jo Liang and her co-founder Ming Zhao, both action-orientated people, who wanted to find a solution to the problem of waste in the street food industry due to the single-use lunch boxes. They discovered that around 11 billion pieces of packaging waste are produced every year from food-on-the-go.

“My co-founder and I are both Chinese, as Asians food is at the centre part of what we do. We really love street-food. What we noticed in street-food is there always packaging waste. When you buy something from the food market, it always comes in a single use. Even if you want to compost or recycle used packaging, there may not be the appropriate bins needed.

Meet the CEO and Co-founder Jo Liang

Jo Liang is proof that behavioural change can occur if you decide to start a new habit and stick with it. She began her career with a blog, where she raised awareness around food waste by choosing to eat only surplus food destined to the bin for 30 days; through that challenge, she aimed to educate about the different ways to prevent personal food waste, and the wider issues surrounding food waste and food poverty. This allowed her to learn about the issues at a grassroot level, speaking with people at all levels of the food supply chain and volunteering with different organisations. “That was how I grew my knowledge, publicised my work, and engaged in the career I am in right now”, she adds.

“My goal is to build the infrastructure so that behavioural change is as simple as it can be, so people do not have to go out of their way to become more sustainable. That is why I built Cauli.”


Before establishing Cauli, Jo Liang had a career in food sustainability campaigning, with a special focus as a campaigner against food waste. “This was a very fulfilling career” she says, “working with public and private organisations to advise on sustainable development”. She noticed that the campaigns are very short lived, even after months of research and carefully crafting messages to get people to change their behaviour, the campaigns end and there is no long-term follow up to generate long-lasting impact. "Sustainability fundamentally is behavioural change”.

Jo’s actions and passion for food sustainability led her to conduct talks to advocate for those issues. This allowed her to receive the “Women in Food” award by the Mayor of London in 2019, and be named on Forbes 30 under 30 2021 Europe in the Social Impact category.


The problem in the UK


In London, food waste, including food packaging, accounts for around 30% of municipal waste. Today there is a lot of pressure being put on people to incorporate sustainable actions into their daily lives. Yet, for many, being sustainable is not a top priority: people’s priorities are paying rent, water bills and getting food on the table.

Encouraging people in local communities to recycle more is a good step forward, but in London recycling rules change from borough to borough. This often can create confusion amongst consumers. Jo adds that, “for a lot of people in the UK, there are a lot of misconceptions of what to do with single use packaging and how compostable it is? There is a lot of confusion around waste, yet I have never met someone who believed that minimising single use packaging is a bad thing to do.”

Reuse is the cornerstone of building a circular economy


Cauli aims to push for policy change, and widespread change in how people engage with sustainability.

To promote reuse is a key aspect to encourage sustainable consumption. Reduce, reuse then recycle. “It is important to understand that recycling is the last resort, after reducing our consumption and reusing assets with our recycling partners, like Veolia, to take care of the end-of-life recycling of our containers.”

“We want to make reusable as simple as single use, if not better.”

The circular economy works at scale, the wide-spread of reuse means that people can collectively reap the rewards of sustainability and share the cost. The greater the scale, the more convenient it is for the users, as they can use their boxes in a wide range of different venues. For customers using Cauli, the more people who use the same scheme, the lower the cost if for everyone.



The journey of Cauli

“We started our own local reusable schemes with some lunchboxes and a clipboard. We went to our favourite food-stalls and asked customers in line if they wanted to use our reusable boxes. It only took us 30 minutes to get a dozen people to support our project. That is how Cauli started, as a small community project in food markets. It slowly grew into the whole street food market, then we started to talk to the councils, which snowball the scheme to a borough wide scheme, and now the leading tech start-up in the reuse space.”  

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, street stalls closed across London. Cauli had to reinvent its approach to expand the project beyond a community effort. During that time, the company developed a technology that provides vendors and users with a viable and accessible reusable scheme system, minimising time and effort for both parties. Today, Cauli is a technology-based food packaging solution focused on workplace and event dining.

“Our goal is to minimise single use packaging waste.”

Cauli now has more than 10 000 active users nationwide. The company is witnessing rapid growth and has a waiting list of clients wanting to use their services. That is why growing the team is a top priority for the company in order to support demand and to expand to sectors where single use is being used and it is avoidable.


Manufacturing of their products


Jo explains that “All our containers are manufactured within the EU, they are specifically designed to be used for commercial purposes. We've sourced reusable containers and cups that are pretty enough that people want to engage with them but not too pretty for people to steal them. They are microwaveable, can withstand high and low temperatures. They can be tracked with the unique QR codes; each container can be used more than 400 times before they are retired.”


How does it work?



Companies that decide to switch from single-use to reuse contact the Cauli team and take up a subscription of their service. The company will be provided with everything it needs to enter the reusable scheme. This includes the boxes, cups, Cauli’s user facing app, the administration panel and their impact reports.


For consumers, the customer would walk up to the counter to borrow a container or a cup for free using the Cauli app; they can return those items at any Cauli return kiosk (CauliKiosk) within 7 days. The containers and cups will be collected by the operators at the canteen before being washed and sanitised and returned to the circular systems to be reused. Every time a Cauli container is reused, users are awarded CauliCoins, the loyalty points system, which can be used to earn discounts and more. 

“Our customers are happy and proud they are able to have a positive climate impact at the personal level and often spread the word within their network about their use of Cauli.”


Jo Liang’s advice and outlook on the future

When asked if she was an optimist or a pessimist about the future and climate change, she answered, I am a cautious optimist. I have a background in psychology, and I know how hard it is to push for behavioural change when it comes to consumption and adopting sustainability practices. I am cautious because of the way that sustainability is being packaged in the market as inaccessible and optional; in reality it is one of the biggest threats affecting our lives and will disproportionately affect people from lower socio-economic status. I am optimistic, as I see that policies are catching up, therefore there won’t be an excuse for people not to adopt more sustainable practices. I am an optimist because I believe that people are inherently good. When given the option, people will engage and will think that the betterment of everyone is something worth pursuing.”

The advice she has for young entrepreneurs is to start small in order to grow big. Building a very intimate understanding of the problem that you are trying to tackle is key.

“When you start a project, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the problem that you are facing. The best way to go forward is to find something that has a very realistic anchor to you. Whether it is engaging with your local community, exploring with a friend, or volunteering at a relevant organisation. That is where you can learn the most and have the biggest impact.”  


Jo Liang interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner. Feature image provided by Jo Linag.



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