In the vibrant food scene of London, Josephine Liang ’14 noticed one thing: the containers. Big or small, paper or plastic, black or white, she uniformly saw them as waste. So did her like-minded friend, Ming Zhao.
“The biggest source of waste in our personal life was the waste we gathered whenever we went out for lunch,” said Liang. “We decided we wanted to do something about it.”
The duo picked up a few containers from a store and asked their favorite Japanese restaurant to try using reusable boxes for takeout. With the restaurant onboard, they recruited 10 people to test the experience for customers.
“Quickly, it got quite popular locally,” Liang said. “We were approached by the local council and then we also won some governmental grants to develop it.”
With the funds, they cofounded CauliBox, the “UK’s first tech-enabled reusable lunchbox scheme.” It’s an impact startup that provides reusable food boxes, called CauliBoxes, to both individuals and businesses to reduce packaging waste. Through the CauliBox app, Londoners can borrow a box from participating locations when buying food. There are also CauliBoxes at partner restaurants. After using them, customers drop off the boxes at Cauli kiosks. So far, they have more than 1,000 users and 10,000 boxes in circulation. Each box can be used about 400 times.
“We are currently working with some of the biggest catering companies,” she said. “We’re trying to essentially capture the market of London and then hopefully use it as a case study (to expand).”
Recycling and composting are difficult in the United Kingdom.
Many people think cardboard takeout boxes are recyclable, Liang explained, but only a few are because because they are either contaminated by food residue or have plastic coating to prevent leakage. If they’re compostable, that’s possible only in a few commercial facilities outside of London. Moreover, what can be recycled in one borough may not be recycled in another.
“We take the guessing game out for companies, restaurants, and users,” she said. “Our partners recognize that using better disposables or compostables aren’t really the way to go in the future, and they do need to work with reusable companies and products.”
CauliBox has been named one of the 10 tech startups disrupting the UK’s food industry by the UK Tech News. That disruption is needed, Liang said, because waste is a structural issue. “I really hate blaming individual people for wasting food or using plastic because I don’t think that’s the root of the problem,” she said. “The problem is that it’s not easy for people to switch to more sustainable options because the infrastructure and the policy do not exist.”
That’s why the most powerful thing is to influence policy and pressure companies to change how they do business, she said.
Toward that end, she obtained a global health science master’s from the University of Oxford, and she’ll start a Ph.D. program on food systems at the UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training this fall.
“I want to focus on policy because down the line, I want to get into policy work and be able to draw a system that makes sense for both the end-user and also producers,” she said. She hopes to learn more about global food sustainability policies and systems so she can work not only in the UK, but also abroad, including in her native Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong is an island essentially. We rely on so many different factors to be able to even think about a sustainable future,” she said. “I hope that I can have a hand in creating that because it is my home city.”
Drawing on Her Colby Experiences
Food has always occupied a special place in Liang’s life.
“Being Chinese, your parents don’t really say they love you, but they do express their love through cooking,” she explained. “It is a very important language and jells the family together—best memories and worst memories all happen at the dinner table.”
On Mayflower Hill, one of the first courses Liang took was Food for Thought by Elizabeth Stokes, the distinguished senior lecturer in writing. As a psychology major and chemistry minor, Liang enrolled in more classes about food.
She got involved in other ways too. She spent her spring break in New Orleans to help build a house after a hurricane. She took on many different jobs—writing tutor, Inside Colby producer, and research assistant. She did hospice training with Associate Professor of Psychology Tarja Raag and took several of her courses, where Liang learned to read academic papers and directly access knowledge.
“I think she really gave me skills like critical thinking,” Liang said. “When I see a problem, I learn as much as I can. And I talk to people, and then my immediate thought is, ‘What is the thing I can do now?’”
A Serial Entrepreneur
Poverty, hunger, and waste are issues that many people would be daunted to tackle. Liang sees them as problems she can address in her community. Before CauliBox, she founded DayOld Eats, an organization that collected day-old goods from bakeries around London to reduce food waste and poverty. “I love baked goods, and it’s a pity to see things that are expensive and worth a lot to a lot of people just become instantly valueless when eight million people are in food poverty.”
During the pandemic, DayOld Eats came to a halt, but Liang introduced her partner bakeries to distribution methods “so that the good fight can keep on going” directly.
She also turned DayOld’s volunteer power into a new pandemic-era movement, Dare to Care Packages, which provided PPE to healthcare workers and care packages to those who didn’t qualify for government help, such as refugees and some immunocompromised people.
“I started it because I’m immunocompromised,” she said. “My thinking behind it was that if me, who is quite well-networked in London, is finding it difficult to get resources, then it’s going to be way more difficult for a lot of people.”
As with DayOld Eats, she got hundreds of volunteers for Dare to Care Packages.
They delivered care packages and manufactured and distributed personal protective equipment across the UK. For the work, she was a featured honoree in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for social impact and was mentioned in the BBC article “Coronavirus: How can I help?”
Dare to Care Packages continues on an ad hoc basis while Liang fully devotes her time to CauliBox.
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