From little thing, big things grow – the story of ClearPlate
Updated: Aug 27
By Peter Bateman, Youth Co:Lab,
ClearPlate, a youth-led social enterprise from China, is proving that small actions can make a big impact in their campaign against the global problem of food waste.
One-third of all food produced globally is wasted, the world does not have a food production problem - it has a waste problem, and it brings with it enormous environmental and economic costs.
'[Food waste] is a huge crisis it causes lots of carbon emissions and financial losses and puts a strain on our resources,' said Jichen Liu, Founder and CEO of Clear Plate.
'ClearPlate is an idea that seems very tiny, very small, but actually, you can find that where there is a social problem, there will be an opportunity to make change happen.'
The team's flagship product is their mobile application of the same name. Using AI technology, the ClearPlate App scans a user’s plate recognizing when no food remains. If the plate is clear, it rewards users with points to claim prizes or pass on a charity meal.
While users receive tangible rewards like coupons or discounts, restauranteurs get exposure to thousands or potentially millions of socially conscious users, which translates to free marketing and hopefully more customers. The application is free to use for both businesses and the public, with the ClearPlate making most of its revenue from in-application advertisements.
Partnering with restaurants, private companies and government, the team has already amassed 5 million users who have taken more than 42 million Zero Food Waste actions, which is equivalent to reducing food waste by 1,600 tons and carbon emissions by 6,200 tons.
For Jichen, and co-founder and CMO, Chenyu Zeng, it is hard to comprehend how far they have come toward reducing food waste and contributing to climate action, considering the startups' humble origins.
'This idea actually comes from an experience I had at a restaurant that gave rewards to customers who did not waste foods,' said Jichen.
'It got me thinking that this isn't a small problem, but actually, it is a very large problem. And the [Chinese] government had put lots of effort to combat food waste. But the traditional way, using posters and slogans - actually these kind of methods are often being ignored by customers.'
Jichen saw an opportunity in using incentives to promote environmentally conscious behaviors and the internet and mobile applications as a means to amplify them.
'[the restaurant Jichen discovered the idea in] is the offline version of ClearPlate. Actually, we are just using the internet and technology to bring this idea online and spread it to many people,' said Chenyu.
The ClearPlate application was launched in October 2018, and from one small action to another, the application’s popularity exploded.
'In 2018, we had 36,000 users from word of mouth, in 2019 it jumped to 300,000, a ten times growth, and then it did the same in 2020 reaching 3 million users - so it was a great progress,' said Jichen.
The team was looking to expand further, so in 2019 they joined the Youth Co:Lab National Dialogue in China, winning first prize.
'After [the National Dialogue] we took part in the [Youth Co:Lab] Springboard Programme and every month we took a module, and had to modify our pitches, and learnt how to communicate with different stakeholders and I think because of this Springboard Programme we had to think deeper about ClearPlate,' said Chenyu.
'It provided us with more resources, like Citi Foundation we will communicate with them and potentially have collaborations with them later, or being nominated [by the team] for things like Forbes Asia. It has been a really great journey.'
In 2020, Jichen was named China's first United Nation Sustainable Development Goals Young Leader, and in 2021, as the CEO of ClearPlate, Jichen made the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list for social impact.
‘Being recognized as Young Leader for the SDGs by UN is a leverage for my team and me to make a greater impact,' said Jichen.
‘Under this role, I am committed to engage young people by collaborating with the United Nations on strategic opportunities.’
ClearPlate has already achieved so much, but the scale of the problem of food waste is so large more needs to be done. Thankfully the team is not lacking in ambition.
'The biggest challenge now is how can we expand our user base from 5 million to 500 million to push ClearPlate into a global campaign, it is a huge ambition, but I think it will come true,' said Jichen.
Since launching their application, the team is looking to expand into other revenue streams that also help to reduce food waste. They have opened an online store where produce is priced cheaper each day it gets closer to the use by date, encouraging users to buy food closer to their expiry date.
For Chenyu, ClearPlate is now 'an online ecosystem to involve different stakeholders to get benefits together and make contributions together toward reducing food waste.'
'Saving food is not just one action. If you cherish food, you will cherish other things as well. This is one tiny behavior that turns into many good habits.'
For Jichen and the team at ClearPlate, they believe it is young people who will lead the change to a more sustainable world.
'We can use commercial means to solve social problems, that is social entrepreneurship, and young people and social entrepreneurship complement each other' said Jichen.
构建餐桌上的人类命运共同体 : Build a community with a shared future for humanity by reducing food waste
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.