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We all know food waste is a problem – meet the innovators fixing it

We all know food waste is a problem – meet the innovators fixing it

Food waste is a global problem, yet some clever pioneers are tackling the issue in innovative ways - from anti-perishability layers and hungry bugs to smart robots.

We all know food waste is a problem – meet the innovators fixing it

Nowadays, most of us are mindful of the food that goes to waste. Gone are the days when compost bins were only found in the homes of hippies and eco warriors. Now, local city councils have composting schemes; in some countries like France, it is even illegal for supermarkets to throw away edible food.

However, despite our efforts, food waste remains a massive problem worldwide. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, one-third of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste: the carbon footprint of wasted food is estimated at 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent.

There is no quick fix to this problem, but scientists and businesses are addressing it in many ways. Olympia Yarger is the founder of Goterra, a Canberra-based business that is turning food waste into animal feed with the help of some hungry bugs and smart robots.

Goterra’s waste management machines are filled with maggots that process food that becomes high-protein animal feed and nutritious soil conditioner. The systems are run on automation, creating an efficient, sustainable solution to wasted food.

The invention, explains Yarger, is centred on the idea of using technology and biology in tandem to solve complex problems. “I think we’ve got to find ways to harness what natural ecosystems already do, to create solutions that are symbiotic and advantageous to solving the climate crisis. I don’t think we will be able to solve this problem solely with tech; I believe there is and will be a need to integrate biology in our solutions.”

She admits that this biotechnology approach isn’t easy, especially when it comes to scaling up. “Making robotic systems that empower a biological solution is inherently difficult because you’re trying to mimic and/or capture the elements of nature that create success and then commercialise them. Mother Nature makes this all look really easy, and it is not. “We’ve iterated our technology in a way that satisfies the questions and delivers the service, while learning as we go.”

Olympia Yarger, founder of GoTerra

Goterra’s machines are used by supermarkets, restaurants and hospitals, and are able to save 9,500kg of CO2 equivalent a day, equal to 2.32 years of electricity for a family of four. This approach of working with Mother Nature is prominent when talking to people in the food waste space.

More and more scientists and companies are looking at ways to harness natural processes, with the help of modern technology. US company Apeel has come up with a clever solution for tackling the food waste problem at the very beginning.

Using material that naturally exists in the seeds, pulp and peels of fruits and vegetables, they’ve created an invisible protective layer that covers fruits and vegetables. By sealing in moisture and keeping out oxygen, the tasteless and odourless Apeel layer keeps produce fresher for twice as long.

Like Goterra, Apeel’s technology is grounded in nature. “We use the building blocks of plants to unlock solutions that operate in harmony with nature, rather than against it,” says CEO James Rogers.

This solution addresses one of the biggest challenges in the food waste puzzle: perishability. According to data compiled by The World Counts, the largest source of food waste is in the production phase, followed by post-harvest handling and storage, and then consumption. Perishability occurs at every stage in the supply chain.

“The current food system is calibrated so closely to past supply and demand expectations and the exact perishability of fresh produce that when the system is stretched, the system breaks,” says Rogers. “By introducing more time, access and freshness across the supply chain, Apeel’s technology extends value and increases operational flexibility for suppliers and retailers. Additionally, shoppers who are more cognisant of their own personal food supply can bring home high-quality produce with a longer window to enjoy it.”

A demonstration of Apeel’s anti-perishability technology

Inevitably, the way forward comes down to a question of responsibility. Is it the consumer’s job to ensure they’re composting and cutting down their household waste? Or is it the businesses that need to take ownership of where their products and packaging end up? The latter hits on a shift in the business sector on the role of product stewardship.

“Fundamentally, I think businesses should be taking responsibility for any waste that’s a result of their actions,” says James Griffin, General Manager Projects and Advisory at the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) in New Zealand.

In August 2020, the SBN launched a Product Stewardship campaign, creating a directory of businesses that offer end-of-life solutions for their products, like take-back schemes and recycling programmes.

“What we’re seeing with our campaign is there are multiple companies who are realising that they cannot just devolve responsibility for the products once they leave the factory gates. New Zealand has quite a lot of waste going to landfill and customers are really keen not to contribute to that, but they need solutions, mechanics and systems to be able to help them, which is where product stewardship comes in.”

Griffin says there are a number of businesses in the food sector demonstrating product stewardship and looking at it from all aspects of the food supply chain. “Foodstuffs are turning food waste from supermarket deli counters into pet food, then there’s the Citizen Collective who are using surplus bread that would have otherwise gone to waste into making beer.”

Like Goterra’s robotic insect device and Apeel’s anti-perishability layer, Griffin says technology is playing a huge role in this space, pointing to Foodprint, an app that lets cafés, restaurants and supermarkets sell leftover food to customers at a discounted price. “Technology platforms like Foodprint are more efficiently connecting the food that would go to waste with consumers and people who could utilise it,” he says. “That’s quite a saving in waste and tapping into an income that those hospitality businesses would be missing out on.”

Coming back to the question of responsibility, Griffin says it has to be shared between consumers and. businesses. However, it’s important to look at where the biggest impact and influence lies. “Effectively, the businesses are able to have more influence on the effectiveness of the schemes by looking at how they’re designing their food products, including packaging and helping ensure that there are systems in place to be able to divert food waste.”

Wherever the responsibility lies, the growing problem of food waste must be met with practical and inventive solutions, ones that challenge us to reconsider what is, in fact, wasted and what is useful.

“I don’t believe we have a food waste crisis,” says Yarger. “Food waste is a symptom of logistics and supply chains and these are driven by culture and policy. What is ‘waste’ in the future will be remarkably different to the waste we see today — which is largely wasted food, not waste at all.”

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