Predictive technologies and home automation against food wasteBY ANTONIO PICASSO AND LUCREZIA CARMIGNANI
- 7 November 2023
- Posted by: Competere
- Category: Senza categoria
Food waste is a global emergency that needs to be addressed with both policies aimed at reducing the phenomenon and the adoption of innovative technologies. Especially in advanced markets, optimizing production and utilizing smart devices can make a significant impact on an issue with strong environmental consequences.
There are many tools that could help reduce food waste including smart packaging that enhances food preservation without resorting to chemicals, remote monitoring for energy efficiency in storage facilities, trash bins equipped with cameras, digital labeling systems, predictive technologies, and blockchain.
THE GLOBAL PICTURE
Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food are lost each year, which accounts for over a third of the total food production. From a consumer’s perspective, food waste is a prevalent issue in both affluent and economically challenged societies. Prosperity leads to extravagantly full shopping carts, forgotten items in refrigerators, and inevitable disposal due to expiration. It also results in oversized portions at restaurants and hotels. On the other hand, poverty, and hunger lead people to consume food recklessly when they have the opportunity, thus wasting a portion of their provisions.
In both cases, the problem is rooted in a lack of awareness and education about food as an energy source. It’s important to remember that food, as a source of calories, is akin to our “oil,” and its production is responsible for 25% of CO2 emissions.
Given this, sustainable food practices should be a cornerstone of green policies, but there is a structural distinction to be made. In economically challenged areas, immediate political action is required to improve the quality of life. This is attainable through true political and economic stability.
NECESSARY INTERVENTIONS, FROM SUPPLY CHAIN TO CONSUMERS
Collateral to this, though on a smaller scale but no less ambitious, there should be interventions at home, where food waste is a consequence of prosperity. These interventions should address both the supply chain and the end consumers. In this context, the role of institutions is crucial in promoting investments in research and development, adopting new, more environmentally sustainable packaging materials, and encouraging the purchase of 4.0 appliances that are part of home automation and the smart home.
- In production
The barcode, found on all products has always been useful for price and quantity information in the market, at least in the eyes of consumers. Today, in its evolved form of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), it represents the endpoint of a long sequence of information collected from the production site to the point of sale.
Additionally, the adoption of predictive technologies and blockchain enables the monitoring, recording, and reporting of the movement of goods throughout the value chain, identifying critical areas. Blockchain technology can serve as a digital ledger, which is useful for producers to immediately check and intervene in cases where a product may have undergone inappropriate treatment.
A concrete example is the latest waste reduction mechanisms, such as compressed air systems, which have evolved to remove only individual non-conforming products, whereas previously an entire production line was discarded along the conveyor belt’s width. By monitoring the filling machines upstream, it is also possible to discard non-conforming products and automatically adjust the connected filling machine, thus avoiding downstream waste.
- In distribution
At the point of sale, the adoption of materials that allow better and extended food preservation without the use of preservatives is strategic for food retailers. These materials create a barrier against humidity, air, microorganisms, vibrations, and impacts.
Today, the role of food packaging is evolving from passive packaging that serves only as a barrier to active packaging that interacts with products by absorbing oxygen or releasing antioxidants and antimicrobials.
An example of this is the NanoPack project, funded by the European Union. It involves a film with antimicrobial properties that releases small amounts of essential oils capable of extending the shelf life of food up to three weeks.
A step further in reducing food waste is the use of IoT technology. Smart packaging, smart refrigeration, and food quality monitoring are among the most common technologies that improve refrigeration systems by continuously monitoring temperature and humidity levels to maintain ideal storage conditions. Remote monitoring is another advantage offered by IoT technologies, which are useful for both food storage and energy efficiency in storage facilities or transport vehicles equipped with refrigeration systems.
The fight against food waste in supermarkets could benefit from the Wasteless system, which uses digital labels that automatically update prices based on product inventory, making products closer to their expiration dates cheaper.
- In consumption
For consumers who struggle to keep track of supermarket product expiration dates, technology can be of assistance in terms of packaging and the use of cutting edge appliances.
One approach is to cover food with transparent and edible films to extend their shelf life. Projects like Apeel use natural substances (fruit and vegetable peels, seeds, and pulp) to create an extra protective layer for fruits and vegetables, preventing oxidation and maintaining the right level of moisture. A similar approach is found in the use of spray film made of nanofibers derived from solid waste products from fruit juice extraction.
Equally effective are smart packaging solutions that “understand” when food has gone bad by detecting changes in the internal environment. As the product ages, the air inside the package becomes more acidic (or basic), causing a change in the packaging’s color.
Smart fridges, on the other hand, are designed to monitor their contents. Thanks to internal cameras connected to mobile devices, consumers can check if a specific food item has run out, preventing unnecessary purchases that would otherwise lead to waste.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nano Systems (Enas) have developed an app connected to a portable infrared spectrometer that uses various wavelengths of light to recognize the characteristic spectrum of each sample, whether it’s food or medicine. If the spectrum doesn’t match the expected one, it indicates that the food is no longer fresh.
One of the causes of food waste is the confusion surrounding expiration dates. To address this issue, there are various types of smart labels under development that indicate whether food is still fresh or not. For example, Mimica Touch is a British label that reacts to temperature and provides real-time information about the freshness of meat, dairy, or fruit juices. The Italian startup Safer Smart Labels has also developed labels to be applied to meat and fish packaging, which detect the atmosphere around protein-based foods and use a color scale to indicate their freshness.
WHAT WE DISCARD, WHAT WE RECOVER
To answer the question of what we throw away, a technology from Winnow Solutions has developed trash bins for restaurant and canteen kitchens equipped with cameras placed on top. Using optical recognition and artificial intelligence, images are processed, and with the help of a connected digital scale, everything that is discarded can be weighed, recognized, and automatically categorized. Data is collected and analyzed, allowing kitchens to know which foods are wasted, at what times during the day or week, what the economic losses are, and more.
In turn, a product called AgriDust, born from the idea of the Italian designer Marina Ceccolini, is revolutionizing the world of 3D printing. AgriDust uses food waste, such as mandarin peels, coffee grounds, peanut shells, bean pods, and the peels of tomatoes, lemons, and oranges. Mixed with potato starch in a combination of 64.5% waste and 35.5% starch, these common waste products have proven to be effective 3D printable materials.
Article published in Italian on Agenda Digitale >>>
Image credits: courtesy of Wise Society >>>