According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the largest category of material placed in municipal landfills. In 2019, 35% of the 229 million tons of available food in the US went unsold or uneaten. Food waste consists of rotten vegetables or expired food which releases methane, a problematic greenhouse gas. $418 billion worth of food is wasted every year.
However, the cost of food waste is beyond monetary measures. While a very small portion of this ‘surplus food’ is donated and more is recycled, the majority goes straight to landfills, is incinerated, flows down the drain, or is simply left in the fields to rot. The startup food waste company ReFED estimates that 24% of all food in the U.S. – 54 million tonnes – goes directly to waste destinations, which can end up in landfill or oceans and contaminates our ecosystem affecting all levels of biodiversity.
New developing technologies are aiming to tackle the ongoing issue of food waste
Around the world, food waste has been recognised as an urgent issue requiring immediate action. The United Nations, US Government, European Parliament, and global business coalitions such as the Consumer Goods Forum, have all set goals to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030. How are they planning on cutting down on food waste? New developing technologies are aiming to tackle the ongoing issue of food waste. The world has turned to science to reach a ‘zero food waste’ world. Restaurants, grocers, farmers, and food companies are increasingly turning to chemistry and physics to tackle the worldwide problem.
From testing spray-on peels to chemically enhanced sachets that can slow the ripening process in fruit, new technologies are being developed to slow down the oxidation of everyday foods. Others are developing digital sensors that can tell more precisely than a label when meat is safe to consume. Packets affixed to the top of a takeout box use thermodynamics to keep fries crispy. All of this is done in the name of prolonging the life expectancy of foods we consume. Food waste startups have raised up to $300 billion in 2021 to mitigate food waste. Among the products in development are a sensor by Stockholm-based Innoscentia that can determine whether meat is safe depending on the buildup of microbes in its packaging. Ryp Labs, based in the US and Belgium, is working on a produce sticker that would release a vapour to slow ripening.
The real problem with food waste is the producers of it
Other scientific inventions include ‘SAVRpak’ founded in 2020 by Bill Bergen. He developed a plant-based packet that can fit inside a takeout container and absorb condensation, keeping food fresh for longer. Brian Morris, Hattie B’s Vice President of Culinary Learning and Development, said each SAVRpak costs the company less than $1 but ensures a better meal. However, there is a hurdle with these scientific inventions. Every food and product has its own expiry date, biological makeup, and handling requirements. Avocados, for example, expire much quicker than citrus fruits, so they would need a different scientific invention. “There is no one major change that can improve the situation,” said Randy Beaudry, a professor in the horticulture department at Michigan State University’s school of agriculture. Food waste is a deeply complex issue that is possibly beyond technological and scientific innovation.
Science is promising but is only one part of the solution. Food is a much more complex issue and is strongly linked to other problems in society. Although technology is great at tackling the longevity of food, it cannot be a reliable solution. The real problem with food waste is the producers of it. Our society witnesses an abundance of food available every single day, to the point that it has become devalued. Whilst some societies have a lack of food, we allow the abundance and availability of food to dictate how much we consume. We have normalized discarding food we don’t want to eat or throwing away the last bit of sandwich you no longer have an appetite for. We presume that it’s just a single convenient action that does no harm. However, what we have done as a collective society is normalise the production of food waste to the extent that it is now the expected outcome with every meal and dinner gathering in our daily lives, especially during the holidays.
We need an active and conscious effort both individually and collectively. Reducing food waste is a community-based effort beyond the scope of technology. Whilst technology drastically helps reduce the problem of food waste, food waste is a societal issue that is drastically improved with mindful practices that we must instill in our children and future generations.