Food waste is the world’s dumbest problem


MIT is known for developing a lot of impressive
technology. But hidden in the kitchen of MIT’s Media
Lab is, perhaps, my favorite MIT invention: the FoodCam. Okay, so it may not look like much but it’s
actually quite brilliant. Let’s say you have some leftover food. You put it under the camera and you hit the
button. FoodCam posts a photo to Twitter, Slack, and
a mailing list. All with a simple message: Come and get it! It looks like a pretty good box of donuts. Yes. It looks yummy under FoodCam. It does. Getting the food can actually be pretty competitive. By the time we got here, just 30 seconds after
it was placed, the whole building had swarmed and all the
pizza was gone. There’s a mad rush of people that come from,
like, every entryway in here to get the pizza. So you got to kind of move pretty quickly. Yeah, it’s a game — it’s like the Hunger
Games. Where… Will and Jon invented the FoodCam all the
way back in 1999. This was before Facebook. Before Gmail. Before social media as we know it. The idea came from a building-wide leftovers
problem. And in some ways, this simple invention gets
at the big problem of food waste. I mean that’s sort of the serious part of
what you have done, really, right? There is no doubt that this completely helped
reduce food waste at the lab. Almost all of the catering people know that
if they have spare food from their event, they can just hit the button and people will
consume that food. And those are not even Media Lab events that
are now fueling the FoodCam. When we picture the stuff that’s hurting
our planet, what do we think of? We think of, like, smokestacks, cars, oil
spills. We don’t really think about all the food
we throw away. In the US, roughly 40% of the food we produce
never gets eaten. That’s over 365 million pounds of food each
day. While that’s happening, about one in eight
Americans still don’t have a steady supply of food
to their tables. And all of this wasted food is a huge contributor
to climate change. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse
gases, just behind China and the United States. So it really is an enormous problem and one
of the easiest ways to address climate change. It takes a ton of resources to produce food. On top of that, you have all of the energy it takes to keep
it cold and transport it around the country. And when food decomposes, it isn’t just
stinky. It releases potent greenhouse gases. Basically, we’re trashing our planet to grow food that
no one eats.But here’s the thing: No one actually likes wasting food. It’s just something that we haven’t been
paying much attention to. Of all of the challenging problems out there,
reducing the amount of food we’re wasting is one of the easiest. In the US, consumers collectively make up
the largest portion of food waste. A family of four spends about $1,500 on food
that they never eat. Meat is less as a percentage of what we buy
but when you consider it in particular, as a greenhouse gas intensive product, meat
waste actually has the highest greenhouse gas impact. And you don’t have to be an expert to understand
why food is going to waste in our homes. We’re all busy and on the go. Sometimes I buy food without thinking, “Do I really need that?” There’s even been a little bit of research
to show that once something goes in the refrigerator it’s actually worth less
to us than before.   Researchers asked people how they would feel
if they got home from the grocery store and dropped a carton
of eggs. And then they asked, well if your eggs sat
in your refrigerator for six weeks and then you didn’t use them, how would you feel about
that? And people felt a lot less remorse. I think a lot of the waste in our society
does come down to choice and wanting to have the
option to eat something at any time, whether or not we use it. Part of the reason we over-buy food is that
we’ve got tons of space to store it in. Refrigerators have grown about 15% since the
1970s. One of the things we found in our research
is that people are uncomfortable with white space when it comes to food. So we love it in buildings, or in design, but when it comes to food, we do not want
to see empty space in our refrigerators, on our plates, and so I really believe that
in some subliminal way we’re just filling everything. And if we had smaller refrigerators, that
let us see everything that was in there, that in itself would lead to quite a bit less
waste in our homes. And it isn’t just our refrigerators that
have gotten bigger. The average dinner plate has grown by 36%
since 1960. When you have a big plate, you tend to put
a lot of food on it —  whether or not you can eat it all. This is something Jill Horst noticed at UC
Santa Barbara. You have a tray that’s 14-by-18 inches and
you feel you need to load it up with food. You would see students that had four glasses:
water, juice, soda, milk — and you’d go to the tray return and they would
still be full. In 2009, the dining halls stopped using trays. Students can take as much food as they want,
but there isn’t a tray to pile it onto. The food waste per person, per tray, reduced
by 50 percent. I mean so that was huge. Let’s say that the average student wastes
six ounces of food per meal. That may not seem like a lot — but UC Santa
Barbara serves 13,000 meals per day. So that’s nearly 5,000 pounds of wasted
food. It’s like throwing 350 Thanksgiving turkeys
into the garbage every single day. And when you take the trays away and it becomes
three ounces, that’s a significant impact to help with not only the food waste, but
food cost. So, it turns out that something very small
— like removing a tray or changing the size of a plate — can have this profound
impact on our behavior. And it doesn’t take much effort, because
the effect is subliminal. The other thing they’re paying attention
to at UC Santa Barbara is portion size. Each plate is portioned one portion for a
student. They can take as many portions as they like, but we are actually plating the right size,
the right amount that we should be eating. We’ve gotten used to these gigantic portion
sizes at restaurants. And in a subtle way, it encourages us to overeat
and throw away a lot of food. If you look around, there’s not a whole
lot of food waste on the plates because of the proper portioning. I mean that’s somebody’s meal. That’s all they have left. None of us are perfect. Wasting less food isn’t just going to happen
overnight. But just having it on our radar can really
help us waste a lot less.   And if we do have extra food, then let’s
at least try to get it to people who could use it. There is so much high-quality surplus that’s
wasted, that just needs to find the people that need
it the most. Komal is the founder of Copia, a startup that’s
trying to recover all of this perfectly good food. If you imagine the world’s largest football
stadium filled to its absolute brim that’s how much food goes wasted every single
day in America — and I’m not talking about last night’s pad
thai or this morning’s half-eaten pastries, but untouched, uneaten, perfectly edible food.   So we don’t need to purchase or make more
food. We just need to figure out how to get it to
the people who need it. MIT’s FoodCam is great at recovering food. But when you start scaling this up from one
building to an entire city or an entire country, it becomes much more difficult. Let’s say you’re a small company and have
200 sandwiches left over from an event. That’s a lot of food — but it takes time
and effort to figure out how and where to donate it. Most people really don’t want to deal with
all this. It shouldn’t be this hard to do a good thing. Like, how cool would it be if people who have
food could say, hey, we have food, and people who need food could say, hey we
need food, and we could connect these two people and
clear the marketplace? So Komal is trying to make food donation easy
and intuitive. If you have some food, you type your info
into the Copia app. A driver will then come pick up your food
and deliver it to shelters that need it. And during big events, like Super Bowl 50,
there’s a ton of extra food. The issue is that it has a short shelf life. Imagine four 16-foot refrigerated trucks filled
to their absolute brim — that’s how much food we recovered. We fed 23,000 people in two days. Nobody slept. And it’s not you know hot dogs and popcorn. It was lobster rolls and pulled pork sandwiches
and $300 cheeses. High-quality food. If we can get food that would otherwise be
wasted to people who need it, we’re not only fighting hunger, but we’re
actually slowing global warming. It really is a win-win. And Komal doesn’t want to solve hunger in
just California. She wants to solve world hunger — period. It’s not about optimism or pessimism. I think it’s just that we’re hell-bent on
making it happen. This isn’t going to be an overnight thing. It’s got to be policy change. It’s going to be other entrepreneurs. It’s going to be really big companies and
institutions also taking a stand and saying that you know what? We don’t tolerate perfectly great food being
wasted. Look, no one likes throwing out food. So we made a simple guide to help you waste
less. To find out more go to climate.universityofcalifornia.edu.

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