Every year, 1.3 billion tons of food (discarded mainly from hotels, retail stores, restaurants, schools, and residential kitchens) are thrown away. This is enough calories to feed every undernourished person on this planet (WWF). In addition to the humanitarian impacts of food waste, there is a bigger problem brewing from the irresponsible disposal of food waste, namely greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and a host of other environmental concerns.
This two-part series uncovers how companies are relying on technology, to remediate the cumulative impacts of excessive and unnecessary wastage of food and other organic material. Following the waste hierarchy (Figure 1), (food) waste solutions always start with the first tier of the hierarchy: Avoidance. As such, Part 1 explores how software can be used to avoid food waste at its onset.
Figure 1: The Waste Hierarchy
Do you know what happens to your leftovers?
More often than not, your table scrapings or last night’s leftovers usually ends up rotting at a landfill site. What happens there? Well, a lot. At a landfill, food waste breakdowns anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen), where naturally occurring bacteria convert the organic waste to Methane gas- a toxic greenhouse gas, 21x more potent than Carbon Dioxide (Figure 2). The decomposition of organic matter in landfills also produces leachate- a by-product from municipal waste that percolates through the soil, collecting toxins and pollutants. If not managed correctly, the leachate can make its way into groundwater and other waterways, resulting in another cause of water pollution with long-term impacts.
Figure 2: What happens to food waste at a landfill site
Embedded costs and wastages
Let us not forget the embedded costs of producing food waste along its value chain: water and land for crops, energy for processing, fuel for heavy machinery during harvesting, and transport to various retail outlets. And the carbon emissions released at each point of this value chain.
Figure 3: Litres of wasted water from food waste
The Derbyshire County Council in the United Kingdom (Environmental Impact Of Food Waste) estimated the amount of water that is potentially wasted when discarding the following types of food:
- 100 buckets of water to produce one loaf of bread
- 54 buckets of water to rear one chicken breast
- six buckets of water to grow one potato
- one bucket of water to grow one tomato
UK households waste 4.5m tonnes of food each year
When looking at the sources of the waste itself, The UK alone accounts for half of global food waste volumes, throwing away more than £14bn of edible food and costing families £700 per annum (The Guardian). Since the outbreak of COVID-19, supermarkets have been criticized for wasting food along their supply chains- food that could have been diverted to charities and food banks.
To address, this, British multinational groceries and general merchandise retailer, Tesco teamed up with OLIO (https://olioex.com), a food sharing and social enterprise app, to stop edible surplus food from ending up in garbage bins. OLIO connects thousands of neighbours with each other and local businesses, to divert food nearing its sell-by-date in local stores, spare home-grown vegetables, and even non-food household items. A photo, description, and location of the item is uploaded to the app, and pick-ups are arranged via private messaging.
OLIO’s partnership with Tesco is its first national joint venture with a major supermarket chain. Tesco plans to roll out the scheme to all 2,700 stores of its UK branches, with the help of OLIO’s extensive network of 8,000 local volunteers, who will visit each store, and collect surplus items for free donation to households and community feeding schemes.
Figure 4: Tweet of appreciation for OLIO
What types of software can be used to avoid food waste?
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
The Japanese are famous for their stringent hygiene policies and innovative technology. So, it’s no surprise that they have turned to Artificial Intelligence (AI), to combat their colossal volumes of food waste, that has since been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic. The Japanese government reported that over 6 million tons of edible food are thrown away every year, at an associated cost of $19 billion.
Figure 5: AI technology
Motivated by the government’s goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, Japanese convenience store franchise, Lawson Inc., has started using US based AI to determine consumer buying behavior, and estimate how much product on its shelves may face risk of being unsold or fall short of demand. Using AI, they aim to reduce overstock by at least 30%.
Japanese consumers are pedantic about neatness and the aesthetics of their food and consumer goods. Consequently, damaged products rarely land on their shelves. Drinks manufacturer, Suntory Beverage & Food Ltd is busy conducting trials using AI to determine if its beverages are damaged during shipping. Suntory hopes that the new AI technology will replace the labour intensive effort of quality control, with accuracy in determining if the contents or packaging are not suitable for sale, thereby reducing wastage at retail outlets, and saving supply chain costs on retuning damaged goods.
- Food Sharing Apps: Connecting restaurants with hungry consumers- at a fraction of the price
Tabete (translated to “eat” in Japanese) is a food sharing platform offered by Tokyo-based CoCooking. Accessible via the web or a smartphone app, Tabete has partnered with around 620 restaurants, delis and bakeries to “rescue” day-old, i.e. unsold food that is still good to eat, selling them at 20% – 30% cheaper than the regular price. Customers select the items they want, pay in advance, and then collect their purchases from the shop. This creates revenue for the shops, cuts down on food waste, and creates an opportunity to attract new customers.
- Internet of Things (IoT)
Internet of Things (IoT) solutions are transforming the retail industry in its approach to food and energy waste issues. IoT technology connects devices that collect data and communicate these to the cloud without human intervention. This data-driven action involves temperature monitoring and energy savings to reduce food losses.
Food retailers receive valuable insights on how to improve energy performance, and the health of their stores, which can then be used to change temperature controls to maximise energy efficiencies for heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, appliances etc. The World Economic Forum reported that over the last five years, IoT solutions have saved $37 million for food retailers by cutting food waste, while avoiding more than 2 million tons of CO2.
Figure 6: Internet of Things
Companies are encouraged to invest in software to align with the Avoidance tier on the waste hierarchy, to help identify which phase in the produce supply chain (from farms to retail stores) is the main cause of food waste, and take the necessary actions to mitigate it.
As a data-driven organization, Don’t Waste has spent considerable time in developing systems and advanced tools that can assist companies with understanding and tracking waste generation, characterisation of waste grades, and monitoring volumes thereof. This data is then used to identify elements of the waste hierarchy that are best fit to their respective operations. This works in creating an efficient and effective waste management system, which ensures minimal impact on the environment from their waste streams.
Follow our page for Part 2: How hardware Can Help Recycle Food Waste.
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