(How) Can We Hack Food Waste?

A FOX IN BROOK GREEN TODAYPICTURE JEREMY SELWYN10/05/2011

A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering of innovators, lawyers, designers, and entrepreneurs committed to sharing their ideas on how to best tackle the issue of food waste. (Why is this an issue? The FAO estimates that nearly one-third, or 1.3 billion tons, of food produced for human consumption, is lost or wasted each year.)

The Meetup lured me in under the premise of smart, social responsibility-oriented gadgets. Take the high solids organic waste recycling system (abbreviated HORSE) from the team at Impact BioEnergy. Designed to help sustain the energy needs of small communities, the HORSE has an anaerobic chamber (or stomach, if you will) that “digests” your food scraps to produce methane. You can use this methane as your own source of natural gas or sell to others, but the device will cost you around $50,000, and there are only a handful of them out there so far.

Another promising innovation is MintScraps–a durable, waste-tracking hardware and software system built into restaurant kitchen trash bins, developed in partnership with Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. At the end of each week, Director of Environmental Health Elizabeth Meltz receives an email with data on which restaurants are producing the most waste, which are composting most efficiently, and so on. Still, Meltz made an apt point: behavioral changes need to happen first for this technology to make an impact. What good will the sensors in the trashcans do if the same amount of bread is being thrown away each week? Enter: the waste audit.

Much less intimidating (to me, at least) than a tax audit, this is a “low-tech hack” in which you start to actually keep track of what makes it into your trashcan by taking notes (or photos), and then use that information to make a recovery plan. Chinese takeout you never finished? Note what it was, how much of it was left, and order more appropriately next time. In the meantime, heat it up (again), and fold it into something new and exciting. Rogue carrots left all alone on the shelf? Take a picture to remember how many you really need next time you go shopping. In the meantime, consider using them in a vegetable stock.

I’m from Silicon Valley, but I don’t think technology is the be-all and end-all, especially when it comes to addressing something as important, personal, and complex as food. In the end, maybe all a particular farmer really needs is a reliable landline to be able to call a friend and see if she would like some surplus squash, rather than an app for a smart phone that she doesn’t have.

I’m not saying we all have to run out and buy Birkenstocks. We don’t even have to start composting. Just start peeking around in your trashcan a little more thoroughly than you’d like. You just might be surprised what you find.

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