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TechMunch: Smart Technologies To Reduce Food Waste

New technology can help solve the challenge of food waste.

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In my family we used to play a game called Journey to the Back of the Fridge. We would embark on a voyage of discovery into the depths of my parents’ refrigerator, seeking wildly colored forgotten leftovers, covered with fuzzy mold.
Modern technology, however, could send this game the way of kick-the-can and Atari, albeit with less sorrow. The fridge of the future might soon be able to monitor its own contents, and alert you before your food becomes a science experiment. New technologies have made refrigerators 75 percent more energy efficient than they were 30 years ago. Now technology can help refrigerators become more food efficient as well. And several new technologies are already helping reduce food waste all along the supply chain.
Samsung and LG are set to introduce smart fridges with touchscreens that allow you to sync grocery lists with your smart phone, or suggest recipes based on ingredients stored inside. While some gadget lovers were underwhelmed (“When you pull dessert out of the fridge does it auto-post on your Facebook wall how fat you are? because then this sounds useful,” commented one user on the tech review site Engadget), this is pretty exciting technology.
Imagine how a smart fridge could help reduce food waste without stooping to public shame. What if your fridge could monitor its own contents, and ping you while you’re at the store to remind you that you still have yogurt and don’t need to buy more? What if it had five different temperature settings, instead of two, and could adjust itself to keep your food fresher, longer? What if it could let you know that your green beans were at peak freshness, and suggest a recipe for you to cook them? That’s where this technology is going.
While we await the advent of the food efficient fridge, we already have smart phone apps like Green Egg Shopper, which allows you to keep track of your food purchases and sort them by expiration date. The LoveFoodHateWaste app, developed in Scotland as part of the U.K.’s national campaign to tackle food waste, provides meal planners, portion planners, and other tips to help you shop for, prepare, and store food efficiently. The Food Storage and Shelf Life app can help sort out food storage stumpers, like where to store apples, and how long you can keep meat in the freezer.
Storing food properly is an issue, though, long before it ever gets to your fridge. The USDA estimates that grocery stores lose about $15 billion of fresh produce each year. Much of this loss stems from improper temperature management. Tracking and monitoring the temperature of produce—what they call in grocery store lingo, “maintaining the cold chain,” is critical to keeping food fresh. So some stores and growers are using a system that remotely monitors the temperature of individual pallets of food from field to store, rather than relying on spot-checking a truckload or container-load of food upon delivery. One case study found that a pallet of blackberries could lose almost half its expected shelf life in transit, while the one next to it on the truck could last twice as long. Ensuring that the riper pallet gets shipped out first allows a retailer to sell it while it’s still fresh. Intelliflex, the company behind this system, estimates that it can reduce food loss by up to 50 percent.
Packaging technologies can help, too. Marks & Spencer and Tesco, two major retail chains in the UK, are testing ethylene-absorbing strips in their produce packaging. Ethylene is the natural chemical released by fruits that promotes ripening, and eventually, causes mold. By soaking up ethylene, the strips prevent produce from getting overripe on the shelves. Marks & Spencer found that the strips extended the shelf life of strawberries from 4 days to 6 days, and estimated it would save 800,000 strawberries from spoiling. Tesco is using the strips on avocados and tomatoes, and expects to save millions of fruits each year. The strips will also help prolong shelf life once you get your purchase home, too.
Technologies like these can make big reductions in food waste all along the chain, from the farm (to distributor to retailer) to your fridge. And if your fridge isn’t smart enough to suggest recipes tailored to its contents, you can always try a low-tech solution. Cookbooks, like The Frugal Foodie or Use It Up, help you make the most of your ingredients, and waste less.
This is part of a series on food from NRDC.
This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at good.is/food and on Twitter at #chewonit.\n
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When I was climbing mountains, and had to carry 30 days’ worth of food on my back, I measured my oatmeal, cheese, and beans down to the last teaspoonful. I would lick the inside of a margarine wrapper to make sure I didn’t miss a single calorie. I needed all the energy I could get to keep climbing. I would never throw away food on a climb, just as I would never leave the house with all the lights on, or air-condition an empty room.
Mountain climbers today still have to be strategic about conserving food and energy, but they have more advanced tools to help, like super-lightweight backpacks and tents, and nutrient-dense energy bars—products specially designed to keep loads as light as possible. And at home, anyone can save energy more easily with tools like programmable thermostats, energy-saving bulbs, and fuel-efficient cars. But when it comes to saving food, our toolkit doesn’t go much beyond Tupperware. In fact, all along the line, our food system actually encourages waste, from farm, to store, to fridge.
Forty percent of the food in this country—almost half—is never eaten. We know we can reduce this waste once we put our minds to it. We’ve done it already, with great success, with energy. Governments, working with and encouraged by advocacy groups, designed programs to educate consumers and to prod manufacturers to design better products—light bulbs, refrigerators, cars—that made saving energy easier. Activists and innovators are just starting to develop solutions for food waste. We need a similar movement to build momentum behind these efforts and start bringing these solutions, literally, to the table. And to farms, stores, restaurants and dining services everywhere.
First, we know that personal actions can reduce waste. Just like remembering to turn off the lights when you leave a room, a simple tweak like making a shopping list and sticking to it, or checking your cupboards before going to the store, can dramatically reduce food waste. In the United Kingdom, households that followed simple guidelines like these trimmed their avoidable food waste by 18 percent.
We can cut waste even further when we monitor it. Imagine if you had a smart meter not just on your electric outlets but on your kitchen garbage bin. (Some restaurants and food service companies are already using a system like this.) Or if your smart fridge could tell you that the broccoli you bought last week really should be eaten today, and suggest a recipe for it.
Grocery stores that monitor waste are finding they can save money and improve customer satisfaction by reducing the amount of food on display, so that the food in front of customers remains fresh. And some innovative food retailers are finding new markets for “funny fruit,” which might be too small or asymmetrical to meet big buyers’ standards but still tastes fine. This food that would otherwise never make it off the farm could go to a discount store, or food bank, or be made into jams instead of being wasted.
Most importantly, we need the government to start addressing food waste, in the same way we’ve tackled energy efficiency. Smart policies can move markets and encourage innovation on a big scale. They also protect consumers. Thanks to government guidelines, when you buy a car, you know how many miles per gallon it gets. When you shop for a new appliance, the label tells you how much energy it uses. Proper labeling lets consumers make energy-efficient decisions. But that doesn’t exist for food.
What we have is a hodge-podge of labels bearing dates that have nothing to do with food safety. They are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. One survey suggests that 60 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely because of confusion over expiration dates. In the United Kingdom, they estimate that their new food labeling guidelines could reduce food waste in homes by 20 percent.
Smart energy-efficiency policies have spurred the development of cars that go twice as far on a gallon of gas, and refrigerators that use 75 percent less energy than they did 30 years ago, all while giving consumers more choices than ever.
A similar focus on food efficiency can spark a comparable flurry of innovation. Licking margarine wrappers might be a useful mountain-climbing strategy, but it is not the way to build a sustainable food system. We need to give consumers, retailers and producers the practical tools they need to reduce waste, and we need to start today.
This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at good.is/food and on Twitter at #chewonit.\n
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