29 March 2016
With more than 3,200 tonnes of food going to waste in Hong Kong daily, two local entrepreneurs have found a way to promote food upcycling by producing Chinese-themed ornaments using food scraps such as vegetable leaves, curry powder and beef tallow. Winnie Ngai and Eric Cheung set up design studio Run2Tree Creations in 2012 to educate the public about greener living through workshops, where people create their own unique accessories.
“We would show up at groceries and meat stores asking for unsavoury vegetables and odd meat parts for prototype development,” said Mr Cheung. “But we usually need stable, large-quantity supplies from food manufacturers for mass production.”
Ms Ngai said protein-rich soya grounds and bright red cabbage, whose bitterness do not appeal to many, are common picks. The pigment is extracted after several rounds of boiling and crushing, a procedure they often perform on a hawker-style wooden cart at various corporate functions and community events. “We want to engage ordinary citizens through these activities and change the society from the bottom up.”
The idea to start an upcycling business came from her experience working in the fashion industry, where vast amounts of textile waste are generated. “To protect the integrity of their brands, my colleagues would throw away unsold clothes every season. Some clothes are deliberately cut and destroyed,” said Ms Ngai. “It runs contrary to what I learned in university, which is to minimise waste and be socially responsible.
She teamed up with Mr Cheung, whom she met at a social entrepreneurship tour, to set up the food design studio Run2Tree.
Their novel business concept has earned international attention with the pair travelling to Europe last October to speak at a food design conference in Milan. Last month, they attended the Ambiente Gifts and Premium show in Frankfurt, where their fish-shaped soaps simulating Chinese New Year rice cakes were among the popular items.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Mr Cheung. “People across cultures love and respect their food. Italians go to great lengths to preserve their culture. Some designers reinvented the penne to retain more sauce within,” said Mr Cheung, who added that the experience has led him to reflect on Hong Kong’s food trends. “The city is indeed a food paradise, but we pay no attention to traditions. We pursue new inventions, new flavours but I hope to reconnect people with our heritage.”
Some of their recent projects included holding corporate social responsibility workshops for coffee retailer Starbucks, teaching participants ways to reuse coffee grounds, including by turning them into soap.
Another project was producing a new dye colour, which involved recruiting a team of volunteers to pick through abandoned peach blossom trees at street markets after the Chinese New Year. “We collect a variety of things, but the key is cleaning them thoroughly to assure our customers that the products are safe to use.” Mr Cheung added that they only use food scraps that are not fit for consumption, and pass on edible items to charity.
They credit the Hong Kong Design Centre’s (HKDC) Design Incubation Programme for helping to move their business forward. “We have been able to speed up our product development since last November, when we were admitted to the incubation programme,” said Ms Ngai. “We also received financial support for attending the Frankfurt show.”
Their membership also took them to the InnoDesignTech Expo 2015, where they showcased their products under the HKDC Pavilion. “The fair gave us ample exposure and we met interesting people there. These connections are important for start-ups like us,” she said.
Entering the Real World
According to the partners, the business is self-sufficient, with each of them earning roughly 80 per cent of what fresh graduates make. Their subsidised rent as HKDC incubatees helps defray costs, which also include employing several part-time freelancers. “We have to prepare ourselves for the real world when the two-year incubation programme ends,” said Mr Cheung. “And since we’re handling more projects and a growing workload, we hope to employ one full-time staff.”
With several projects in the pipeline, the founders’ ultimate goal is to promote Chinese food to the world. “I want to differentiate Chinese food as being not just another Asian cuisine,” said Mr Cheung. “I want to create the one product that represents the rich Chinese culture, one that people can immediately understand.”