Food waste is a huge issue, as it has been mentioned in the “Money-less Man” book review. In total, we waste 35% of all food that we produce — a huge amount.
Aside from the huge amount of money we are losing, there are few more caveats: for every pound of food we waste, a significant amount of energy and water is also wasted. Afterward, energy is also spent to collect waste and transfer it to landfills. For all energy we spend, a significant amount of CO2 is generated, as most of our energy comes from sources that are not clean or renewable.
At the end, when wasted food is left to rot in a landfill, it will generate the dangerous greenhouse gas methane (which is 25 times more potent than CO2) methane created on landfills accounts for 10% of all methane created. A small percent is due to standard processes in nature, but most of it comes from food waste. In comparison, animal methane contributions (enteric fermentation) accounts for 26% of all methane generated.
The question is: what can we do about it?
1. Eat less meat
If we would stop eating meat and consuming dairy products, we would significantly reduce the number of animals we grow for food and therefore reduce energy, carbon, and methane emissions, and we would also reduce food waste.
The impact of agriculture and meat farming on the environment is mind-boggling. It is not just the methane from burps and manure from cattle or from the excess food rotting in landfills; it is also the massive amount of crops, water, and energy necessary to feed the cattle.
Even the UN has said a number of times that the impact of agricultural farming on drinking water, energy resources, and methane emissions is significant. Any reduction of our meat consumption would help significantly. While rotting meat, when left in landfills, does not crate methane similar to plants, meat has a much worse issue for humans: it represents a possible biohazard, as rotting meat on open fields is ideal for developing bacterium that are deadly to humans.
In order to make this happen, we would need to overcome one of the major issues - our habits.
Human habits are difficult to change. A good example is patients suffering from cancer or heart conditions. Even when they are advised by doctors to change certain habits, the majority of patients would rather choose to die than to give up meat. It is not that they choose to die directly, it is just that those habits are so deeply rooted that they cannot change them. Food habits are very similar to drug addiction: although, for some people, this change can come effortlessly, for most people, it takes significant emotional change and effort or a very long time, in order to stop or change old habits.
So, if it is so difficult to change the habits of one man, how can we do it with the entire population? Do we need to be scared by outbreaks like mad-cow disease or bird flu to make us change our habits?
However, there are better ways to reduce waste and methane emissions.
Let’s imagine that we could pull it off somehow, and we would change our meat eating habits, what would happen then? With all of the positive effects it would have on the environment, it would also mean a reduction of animal livestock potential. We usually forget that there are around 1.5 billion cattle on the planet. Each year, we are committing large-scale genocide on members of other species because of our food habits.
That is an interesting moral topic to discuss: is it better to cause one species to go extinct or to keep their numbers high but kill them in yearly numbers that could shame even those who committed the worst genocides in our history?
Sad as it is, but the food is the only reason why we keep certain animal populations in large numbers. We tend to think about everything and everyone in a way of purpose. We made large numbers of species completely extinct, just because we could not find a purpose for them — a purpose that will serve us. What do you think what would happen with pigs, cows, sheep, goats if we have no other purpose for them?
In the US alone, at the beginning of last century, there were roughly 22 million horses, and then cars, trains, and other means of transport came. In the 1960s, the population of horses dropped to 3 million while the population of humans increased dramatically.*3
While stopping eating meat would reduce animal livestock, and thus significantly reduce methane generated by animals (enteric fermentation process), it would not stop the immense amounts of methane generated as result of the food waste rotting in landfills. By eating less meat, we would eat more plants, and withour reducint waste even more methane would be generated on thelandfills.
To reduce the waste food methane emissions into atmosphere, we need to change other things as well.
2. Reduce the human population
It is a simple mathematical equation proposed by some people: less people on the planet would create less waste and, therefore, make less pollution.
However, reducing the human population is a difficult task under the current system. Market capitalism is the main proponent of population growth. In order to make more profit, you have to sell more products; in order to sell more products you have to have more people buying. In order to maintain growth with an aging population, a country has to always keep the number of young workers high.
This will be discussed later in more detail, but even having policies like China’s, while having poverty at the same time, would not stop population growth. Even with a very low birth rate — or a birth rate that is equal to the current death rate — we would need 20 years to adjust to acceptable food waste reduction. Do not take this for granted or too seriously; this is not a plan for eugenics. It is here just to encourage your imagination. There are better solutions for food waste reduction; just continue reading.
Food waste is a human concept. Except when the population is zero, we always produce waste, but it does not have to be that way. In nature, nothing is wasted; everything is part of the natural cycle, and, because it is dispersed, nature can handle it. Life, death, and rebirth are rhythms in which nature operate. On the other hand, in nature, animals do not go to a supermarket and buy food; all time is spent searching for food and repeating the cycle. In order to reduce waste, we do not have to lose the current commodities; we can combine what we know and things we can learn from nature, we just need to learn how to manage our production usage and waste disposal better.
Above are hypothetical solutions that are created only by playing with numbers. Let’s check other solutions. Please comment below, write numbers for those you think would work, or submit your own solution.
- There are two main approaches to solving the food waste problem:
- The first approach is to use food waste in the way that would not be harmful to the environment.
- The second is reducing waste, and this approach has two components: reducing waste at the source and reducing waste in our homes.
3. Methane digesters
Currently, the most dangerous greenhouse gas in the atmosphere (because of its potency and amount) is methane. We need to find ways to reduce as much as possible as soon as possible.
I already wrote about ways to reduce methane generated by cattle, but those solutions do not prevent gas from being generated by the huge amounts of waste food rotting in landfills. In order to fight global warming, we need to address this issue and either stop or significantly reduce the future production of methane.
By processing waste and capturing methane that could be potentially created in landfills, we could use it as fuel — a source of energy. Instead of burning coal and gasoline, we could burn methane, and by burning it convert it to the less harmful CO2, which is also a green gas, but far less harmful than methane.
This has enormous business potential, as well.
Here is what we can do:
- Collect food waste from shops, restaurants, and homes separately and process it (check 4.).
- Expired food usage: At the time of disposal, most of the food is still good for use, but we throw it anyways, because some label says so, and because we made a law that will force shops to remove that food from the shelves. We follow the same habit at home unaware that the food we are throwing away is still good. That food can be given to charity restaurants (check 7) or used as food for omnivore animals like pigs, instead of dumping it in landfills.
Public methane digesters: Whatever is left from the collection stage (rotten food that cannot be given to humans or animals) or is leftover after the expired-usage stage should be transferred to bio digesters, which would efficiently generate methane from waste food. Then, the methane can be compressed and used as fuel for heating, transportation, or electricity.
- Produced methane can be sold as a source of energy.
- “Public digesters” can pay a small amount of money for the waste, in order to encourage handover from shops or producers
- Slurry and high-quality compost created as a byproduct of digestion can be sold to the local greenhouses or food producers.
Digesters for farms: Farms that produce manure or have any type of food waste should be obligated to possess bio-digesters for methane collection and processing. Excess farm food should not end up in landfills under any circumstances, as there are always ways to process that food further.
We could create policies to nudge farms to create their own bio-digestive facilities, where the size of the facility would correspond to the waste amount. Another acceptable solution would be to transport waste to the public bio-digester plants, which would have a larger processing capacity.
4. Food Waste Collection
Collect food waste from shops, restaurants, and homes separately and process it accordingly.
- Food waste can be divided in two categories:
- Waste that can be used further, either with additional processing or directly by second-hand restaurants or food processing facilities, where it can be used as food for humans or animals.
- Trash food that cannot be used any longer as food for humans or animals
Collection has to be organized. In the same way that plastic, paper, and metal are separated for recycling at the point of collection, food waste must be collected separately.
This can be challenging, because of the ongoing decomposition of the food, but it is nothing that cannot be overcome by current technology. In crude form, it would require a separate type of disposal bin that could carry out this type of task, so that gases would not leak and the smell would not spread. Proper management, cleaning, and a regular transport cycle would allow for a fail-safe and carbon-neutral approach.
A more infrastructural approach would be to create a separate pipe system that would shred, mash, and transport food waste through vacuum pipes towards public methane digesters; this should be done in way that would increase efficiency and decrease cost. This would require a bit of planning and infrastructure solutions, but, with a few nudges, the system could self-organize without any special need. Going by this route, there is one more important concern: some detergents and products we are using for cleaning can impact the operation of bio digesters*2. The solution to this would be to switch to eco-friendly, biodegradable versions of soaps and detergents.
Laws and policies should be made, in order to force food producers, shops, restaurants, and industries to safely manage their waste and hand it over to processing entities.
5. Better Food Labels
Correct information at the right time means everything. If we had a label that tells us how many days are left until expiration, people would probably change their habits. Currently, labels have 2 dates: date of manufacturing (which is usually hidden and not easy accessible, so the user has to spend time searching for it) and every product has a different naming convention for “Best before” or “expiration” date. After the “best before” date has passed, food usually finishes in the shop’s bin, regardless of its state.
Because food decomposition depends on many things — like heat, light, type of packaging, exposure to air, microorganisms, or chemistry inside of the foods — no one can tell exactly when a given food will go bad. Thus, the “expiry date” that is printed on the package represents an approximation or some usual minimum value.
Better labeling would require unification and also display important information on the front of the product, showing important dates by color-coding. An interesting idea is also to have a label that will chemically change color with the passage of time *4. One more idea is to have a label that will change its colors in reaction to the different gases inside of the food packaging.
These color-changing “sensors” are very cheap to manufacture, and the technology has been publically available for quite some time. In the health industry, we have been using similar technology for decades to detect different agents in our blood or urine; now, it’s just a matter of repurposing existing technology.
6. Reduced Food price for “expired” food
Shops in numerous countries already do this: they sell goods that are soon to be expired at a reduced price, and they display those products at the front of the store.
This approach can be improved on. Shops could increase the number of days of “expiry period” and display it on the smart label (explained above) that food would be cheaper by 25%, 50%, 75% approaching the expiry date. Color-coded labels would give clear information on what that means. In this way, each segment of the smart label would give a clear ratio between food freshness and its cost.
7. Giving “expired” food for free
In order to decrease waste, shops could leave the expired food one day longer on the shelf, but already expired foods would be free.*5
What would they achieve with this?
The advantage of this is that shops would not need to lose time with immediate disposal management. Also, people who are in need could enter shops as usual customers, instead of diving in the bins. First, this approach would reduce waste, and, secondly, it would give back the human dignity to those in need without the humiliation connected with dumpster diving. Imagine: anyone could take the expired food for free, it would be deducted from the store’s inventory at the register, and there could be government tax credits for products given away for free. This would encourage stores to participate.
Laws would need to change, in order to allow this; otherwise, shops could be fined for displaying goods after the “expiry” date. A more systematic approach for food waste could be to give unused food from producers and shops to charity restaurants.
Public restaurants can be a part of the solution. If people would eat out more, waste would reduce significantly. No, I am not trying to advertise restaurants; this is just a simple efficiency statement. Everything that is done on a larger scale can be more efficient and less wasteful than one thing done a million times — just as we have increased efficiency for industry by creating specialized jobs.
Eating out would require making prices more affordable, so that the cost of making food would be comparable to that of preparing your own food (time + ingredients + energy) at home. In that way, people would choose restaurant food over personal cooking. The key thing would be to prepare meals that are similar to home cuisine, in contrast to the widely-available junk food. This would also require locally-oriented restaurants with a wider range of meals and easy delivery options, including reusable packaging that could be returned on your next visit, or food transfer options at the point of the delivery.
Now, we have to stress one thing: these restaurants should not allow the creation of unnecessary plastic waste by having disposable eating utensils. Any good restaurant has its own ceramic dishes and accompanying dining set, and its management should be pretty straightforward. If people are worried that dishes and cutlery may not be properly washed, restaurants could allow people to bring their own dining sets (fork, spoon, and dinning knife). Or they could use edible cutlery. *12
There are couple more interesting ideas circling around, created to tackle food waste in restaurants.
One idea is to have restaurants without menus. People who come to order food in those can only choose drinks; the food is served from a fixed menu, controlled by the chef. Without a menu there is significantly less waste. Although this does not reduce the amount of food that is left on the plate, it can reduce ingredient waste created in standard restaurants, as chefs need to order food daily, in order to cover all options on the menu. Most of the time, many options have not been ordered, or some options were ordered more than others, producing undesired waste.
Regardless, what is left after consumption can be still processed further as animal food or in bio digesters, in order to create methane fuel.
Another idea from Denmark is restaurants/shops that sell only expired food *1. In them, people can eat healthy and tasty warm meals created from expired food only. Several restaurants in the UK are intercepting wasted food and preparing healthy meals with it, where the customer can choose how much they wish to pay *8 *9 *10 *11; if they do not have money, they can volunteer to do some work. These are mainly organized as charity shops for people in need; at the same time, they are doing a very good job to raise awareness about the food we waste and that, despite the fact that we live in rich countries, we still have hungry people.
In order to tackle immense waste people leave on their plate after the meal, a simple solution of refills could be applied. Imagine, instead of having one huge portion for the money you pay, your meal could be divided into 3 smaller portions. If you eat a portion entirely, you have a right to a refill. If you want more after the 3rd refill, you would need to order and pay for a new meal.
9. Food Network
Big data combined with AI algorithms could create a food network that could manage food demand and supply much better. It would be possible to calculate approximate variability across time for a certain product, in order to minimize food waste. As shops usually have a huge number of products, this job would be ideal for powerful AI algorithms to sort. This would be an ideal task for AlphaGo, Google’s AI that recently won a match against the human world champion in the game GO.
Part of better food management would be to reduce the size of supermarkets by automating the shelves at shops. Something similar has been done in Amazon storage warehouses, where most of the handling is done by machines. In that way, there would be always just one product on the same kind on display. Additional information, like next item replenish time and many other useful data, could be displayed, in order to “reduce” customer waiting time. That could have an impact on how we use food and how much we waste, as well.
10. Smart Fridges
When I say smart fridges, I do not think about a fridge that politely debates with you about the pros and cons of morning exercise. I am thinking more about the fridge that can mathematically calculate your habits, it is “aware” of its contents, and keep track of when certain food expires, so you can cook/use those items first or replenish its content.
If a fridge could create recipes and give you advice on what to cook and when — including calculating the nutritious content that would be in line with your needs — that would significantly reduce waste. Also, it would reduce unnecessary shopping for food that is not needed.
Usually, when we shop, we tend to buy more than we need, as we simply do not have a sense for how much we need and when we will need it. Most of the time, we rely on our gut feeling, instead of on real planning, as planning requires willingness and an effort — so we tend to avoid it. Therefore, we waste more than we should.
In the end, the idea would be to reduce the contents of the fridge completely and eat more food that does not need cold storage, like grains, instead of meat or dairy products.
11. Robot Chef
Recent developments in technology are promising and can significantly impact the quality of the food we eat, its nutrition content, and the amount of waste that follows.
If we would have a robot chef to plan our dining habits — combining its skills with the smart fridge — in theory, there shouldn’t be any waste. It will automatically order food, manage the usage and processing, and, in the end, manage disposal of the remains. Furthermore, combining it with the dishwasher and smart food waste collector would close the loop. But, if we use it with a “Genie in a bottle” attitude, always demanding different things, it would be hard for any algorithm to make a useful pattern of our habits and reduce our energy and waste footprint.
This does not mean that we should always eat the same meal; it means that, in order to make things more efficient, we should allow machines to calculate optimal efficiently for using the ingredients on-hand, using them before expiration, and surprising us with new things available from what we have but might never think to make on our own. Another approach would be that we would need to express our dining wishes a few days in advance, so that the machine could plan ingredients to order, deliver, and control in the inventory.
Nowadays, machine cooking is at its infancy, robot-chef movements are strictly predefined, and they cannot cope well with any type of event that is outside of those movements. If anything unpredictable happens (milk spill or sticky food), they will fail to respond in a normal human manner. However, it will get better over time; every day, robots are becoming smarter and more capable. By understanding our health and amounts of food we require, it will know when the food will expire and combine ingredients efficiently, significantly reducing food waste and freeing our time at the same time.
Robot chef would be an excellent choice for restaurants, as well; reducing human labor would reduce restaurant prices and the need for huge food storage spaces at home, as anyone could dine at a local restaurant for a fraction of the cost.
One more significant advantage of Robot cooks over humans: while preparing food, robots can be significantly cleaner than humans. Multiple sensors could detect spoiled food and avoid any possibility of health and hygiene hazards. Also, a moody and angry robot chef would never spit into your soup or do something even worse along those lines.
While the first version of the robot chef will be pretty expensive, just as with any consumer electronics, the more competitors there are in the market and the more mass-produced they are, the price will drop significantly. While the estimated price is similar to an expensive car, in the future, that cost will drop to that of a mid-range kitchen appliance. There is also one more advantage: as waste is converted into energy in bio-digesters, the robo-chef could be energy self-sufficient.
12. The best solution
Putting aside plans to switch from our current food habits to being charged out of the wall sockets, there is no one single best solution that would resolve our food waste problem in a desired manner.
The best thing would be to combine the several solutions I have listed here — and some others that have not been listed. If we would apply everything we know, food waste would be significantly reduced, and we would not need to worry about ecological problems that usually go along with it.
Six years ago, the UK warned that it will run out of landfill sites in eight years, and that day is approaching fast *6. Managing and recycling our waste better would tackle the problems we are facing now and especially those we will face in the future.