Can Technology Solve the Waste Epidemic?

From food waste to optimising your business. . .

Imagine walking into your kitchen and throwing an entire third of its edible contents into the bin. It sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what happens to a third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide. It goes without saying that food waste is bad for the economy. Vast amounts of energy go into the production of food, including water, land, labour, transportation, storage, and cooking. The later in the production chain that food becomes wasted, the more resources have been expended for nothing. It’s not just the economy that suffers – food in landfill sites creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation found almost an even split between food waste at the production and consumption levels. As is often the case, this can be largely put down to a lack of education. As governing bodies work to curb mass hunger, hard data is crucial. Thankfully, organisations are collaborating to provide this information, as well as encouraging consumers and corporations to break the culture of wastefulness. Could technology be the answer?

The dirty details
Last year, engineering services company Tetra Tech headed up a survey of over 1150 US residents in Denver, Nashville and New York City. The study was conducted in partnership with the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) and the Rockefeller Foundation to find out just how much food waste there was, and how it could be reduced. Researchers sifted through 277 residential bins, 145 industrial and commercial waste containers, and collected 631 kitchen waste diaries. Across all three cities, coffee, bananas and chicken were the most common waste items. As high demand products which are heavily influenced by personal preference, this makes sense. Other conclusions were not so straight forward. While 58 per cent of participants felt less guilty about wasting food if they knew it would be turned into compost, New York City compost schemes actually led to more overall rubbish. In terms of waste per household, Denver was the worst culprit, churning out 7.5lbs per week. Somewhat reassuringly, this is lower than previous estimates of 11.6lbs per household per week. As useful as these findings are, they only represent a small sample of one (admittedly large) country. Hopefully, the fledgling project carried out in Denver, Nashville and New York City could encourage more analysis of food waste, leading to meaningful conclusions and patterns.

Disrupting food waste
Tetra Tech’s tale of three cities was published in two different reports. The first explained the results, and the second suggested a number of different ways that cities could work towards reducing hunger and improving food security. This included setting targets, raising awareness, conducting further research and redesigning waste management. It was also suggested that existing compost and recycling systems could be made easier to use. From these recommendations, it’s blindingly obvious that changing consumer attitudes is a fundamental priority. However, it’s equally important for organisations to accept responsibility. Supermarkets have already started to do this by selling imperfect produce at a reduced price. Technology firms, scientific research teams and influential companies also have a huge role to play in facilitating positive disruption. In the lab, CRISPR gene editing is modifying produce so fruit and vegetables can grow without relying on favourable natural conditions. One day, 3D printers could supercharge food production by printing edible items at incredible speed. Smart city technology and the Internet of Things will be able to provide masses of information about production and consumption, helping to balance supply with demand from the field to the fridge. The automation of agriculture and decentralised record keeping of blockchain will also contribute to transparency and efficiency. Once organisations can work out what, how, where, and when food wasted, they will be better placed to develop solutions.

Every time a retailer rejects a crate of wonky carrots, or someone throws out a browning banana, time, effort and money trickles down the drain. Not only is this damaging for the economy, but also to the environment and humanity itself. According to UN estimates, more people die from hunger each day than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Corporations and consumers have a dual responsibility in bringing about positive change, whether that be through eating leftovers or funding sophisticated projects. Governments should encourage this by working to improve recycling systems, investing in public education projects and setting realistic targets. If this can be driven by advances in technology,  in data collection, food production, and supply chain connectivity, then their efforts will not be wasted.

What could help in raising awareness of and developing food waste solutions? How representative do you think Denver, Nashville and New York City are of the US? Do influential organisations in more economically developed areas have a responsibility to less developed parts of the world? Share your thoughts and opinions.