As the saying goes, “You are what you eat”, but the food that we throw away could say more about us.
Data by the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation indicates that Malaysians dumped 4,081 tonnes of edible food in 2021, which accounted for about 10% of the 38,219 tonnes of solid waste generated every day.
Food waste is a global issue that is on the rise.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that 17% of the total food available to consumers, or 931 million tonnes of food, went to waste in 2019.
That’s the equivalent of 23 million fully loaded 40-tonne trucks that, if lined up bumper- to-bumper, will circle the Earth seven times.
And when food waste ends up in landfills, it will rot and produce large amounts of methane gas, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Cutting methane emissions by 45% by 2030 is crucial to meeting the Paris Agreement, according to the UNEP.
The international treaty on climate change, of which Malaysia is a part, aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit temperature increases by 2°C while pursuing measures to limit the increase even further to 1.5°C.
Reaching this goal will require everyone to curb food waste, which is made easier by the tech-forward solutions being developed around the globe.
Local startup Maeko wants consumers to rethink how they dispose of food waste at home.
It introduced Munchbot in 2022, an electronic bin that turns food scraps into compost.
The company claims that the bin, which can take up to 5kg of food waste a day, will process it into compost in 24 hours.
The device may be a more convenient means for households to repurpose their food waste, as composting the traditional way can be a messy and time-consuming process. However, users may baulk at the price – Munchbot costs RM4,980.
When shopping for fresh produce, people would typically rely on their senses like touch, smell or sight to determine if, say, a fruit is ready to be consumed.
However, doing so will leave squeeze marks and dents on the fruits, making them undesirable for purchase and ending up going to waste.
The Netherlands-based startup OneThird wants to help prevent this with a scanner it has developed that can help shoppers figure out the ripeness level of avocados.
It employs optical detection and machine learning to evaluate whether or not an avocado is ripe for consumption, and then displays this information on a screen.
Knowing this, consumers can buy avocados based on when they plan to consume them.
The food scanner is currently being tested at a supermarket in Canada.
The company is also working to introduce its technology into the supply chain to help growers and distributors predict the shelf life of produce such as blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes.
According to OneThird, it combines scanning data with historical batch information, environmental data, location and a number of other sources to give growers actionable insights about their produce.
To help restaurants better tackle food waste, another Dutch company, Orbisk, has made a smart bin with a camera and motion sensors that can analyse the amount of food waste produced at the ingredient level.
Artificial intelligence (AI) will process photos of food that the bin has captured in order to determine its condition.
According to a report by Hello Future, a research and innovation website by French telco Orange, the data processed by the bin can help restaurant operators make purchase decisions based on the amount of food waste they generate.
For example, the device can advise the operators on the exact quantity of ingredients like potatoes to buy.
Orbisk has been operating in Europe since 2019 and plans to expand to the United States.
Similarly, startup Wasteless is hoping that its AI-driven solution can help reduce food waste through its dynamic pricing algorithm, which tracks the expiration date of food on shelves in stores in real time.
The system will automatically adjust the price of perishable food items as their expiration date approaches. Wasteless hopes this will encourage shoppers to save money and reduce food waste, while also increasing sales for stores.
Wasteless first launched in 2017 in Madrid, Spain, and has since deployed its solution in 40 outlets in Europe.
According to the news site Salon, data from pilot stores using the system indicated that they had a 32.8% decrease in food waste and a 6.3% rise in revenue from food that was sold rather than discarded.
Donate, don’t discard
Organisations have also sprung up to help reduce waste by channelling excess food to those in need.
What A Waste is a local platform whose mission is to redirect food that would otherwise be thrown away to those in need.
Based in Subang Jaya, the social enterprise, first established in 2018, has launched the What A Waste app to help its beneficiaries locate participating partners from which they can collect food.
It welcomes food donations from outlets such as restaurants, bakery shops or food business owners to provide unsold food to its beneficiaries.
“Essentially, this app helps our donors connect with our beneficiaries in a more convenient manner,” its founder, Angela Tan, said.
She said due to budget constraints, the app has limited functionality as it doesn’t allow the general public to donate food.
For now, more efforts are being put into encouraging more businesses to be a part of What A Waste’s initiative to rescue unsold food, she added.
Tan said that the app is benefitting around 30 to 50 families in the Klang Valley, adding that people can also message the organisation through the website (bit.ly/WAWcontact) as well.
A person in the B40 group can register as a beneficiary through the app or website, which will be verified by the non-governmental organisation (NGO).
“We’re also looking into developing a webpage as well that would make it easier for people to search for or channel food for donation.
“As an NGO, there are challenges in terms of funding, but we’re doing what we can to digitialise the food rescue process for the convenience of both our beneficiaries and partners,” said Tan.
Meanwhile, Green Hero lets users contact it via Facebook or WhatsApp to arrange for surplus food to be picked up and distributed to the needy.
The service, currently only available in Penang, said in a Facebook (@theGreenHero) post that it provides free delivery service to any NGO home.
It added that the cost will be borne by sponsors in the Green Hero community.
Green Hero claims it has prevented over 40,000kg of food from going to waste.
Efforts are also being made to reduce food waste by exploring technology that extends the shelf life of food.
In 2017, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore reported that a food distributor is testing an air purification system called Airocide, which was developed by Nasa.
The system aims to overcome the effects of ethylene accumulation, which is a type of gas that occurs naturally in certain fresh produce.
When produce such as berries and broccoli come into contact with ethylene, they will ripen more quickly and are also more likely to deteriorate faster.
The report stated that after installing the Airocide chillers, produce, namely strawberries and romaine lettuce, could last three to five days longer.
US-based Apeel Sciences has also developed a plant-based coating that can be applied to fresh produce to help reduce oxidation and slow down the rate at which the food goes bad.
The product, named Apeel, is distributed in powder form. After mixing with water, the product is then applied to fresh produce.
The company claims that Apeel is odourless, colourless and will not affect the taste of the produce.
As it was made with food-grade ingredients such as peels, seeds and pulp of fruits and vegetables, the company claimed that the powder is edible.
Fruits such as avocados can last two to three days longer when protected with Apeel.
Currently, a number of fresh produce items are treated with Apeel and are being sold at stores in the US, Canada and Europe.
Back home, entrepreneur Zhafri Zainudin and partner Buquari Othman developed StixFresh, a sticker the size of a coin that can be applied to fruits to extend their shelf life, in 2017.
The sticker was formulated with a microbial compound to create a protective layer around the fruit to slow its ripening process.
StixFresh has since partnered with US-based food and crop protection company Ryp Labs to further develop and test the solution for commercial release.
According to a report in 2022, the company is in the process of completing pilot studies with retailers and distributors.