In my family we used to play a game called Journey to the Back of the Fridge. We would embark on a voyage of discovery into the depths of my parents’ refrigerator, seeking wildly colored forgotten leftovers, covered with fuzzy mold.
Modern technology, however, could send this game the way of kick-the-can and Atari, albeit with less sorrow. The fridge of the future might soon be able to monitor its own contents, and alert you before your food becomes a science experiment. New technologies have made refrigerators 75 percent more energy efficient than they were 30 years ago. Now technology can help refrigerators become more food efficient as well. And several new technologies are already helping reduce food waste all along the supply chain.
Samsung and LG are set to introduce smart fridges with touchscreens that allow you to sync grocery lists with your smart phone, or suggest recipes based on ingredients stored inside. While some gadget lovers were underwhelmed (“When you pull dessert out of the fridge does it auto-post on your Facebook wall how fat you are? because then this sounds useful,” commented one user on the tech review site Engadget), this is pretty exciting technology.
Imagine how a smart fridge could help reduce food waste without stooping to public shame. What if your fridge could monitor its own contents, and ping you while you’re at the store to remind you that you still have yogurt and don’t need to buy more? What if it had five different temperature settings, instead of two, and could adjust itself to keep your food fresher, longer? What if it could let you know that your green beans were at peak freshness, and suggest a recipe for you to cook them? That’s where this technology is going.
While we await the advent of the food efficient fridge, we already have smart phone apps like Green Egg Shopper, which allows you to keep track of your food purchases and sort them by expiration date. The LoveFoodHateWaste app, developed in Scotland as part of the U.K.’s national campaign to tackle food waste, provides meal planners, portion planners, and other tips to help you shop for, prepare, and store food efficiently. The Food Storage and Shelf Life app can help sort out food storage stumpers, like where to store apples, and how long you can keep meat in the freezer.
Storing food properly is an issue, though, long before it ever gets to your fridge. The USDA estimates that grocery stores lose about $15 billion of fresh produce each year. Much of this loss stems from improper temperature management. Tracking and monitoring the temperature of produce—what they call in grocery store lingo, “maintaining the cold chain,” is critical to keeping food fresh. So some stores and growers are using a system that remotely monitors the temperature of individual pallets of food from field to store, rather than relying on spot-checking a truckload or container-load of food upon delivery. One case study found that a pallet of blackberries could lose almost half its expected shelf life in transit, while the one next to it on the truck could last twice as long. Ensuring that the riper pallet gets shipped out first allows a retailer to sell it while it’s still fresh. Intelliflex, the company behind this system, estimates that it can reduce food loss by up to 50 percent.
Packaging technologies can help, too. Marks & Spencer and Tesco, two major retail chains in the UK, are testing ethylene-absorbing strips in their produce packaging. Ethylene is the natural chemical released by fruits that promotes ripening, and eventually, causes mold. By soaking up ethylene, the strips prevent produce from getting overripe on the shelves. Marks & Spencer found that the strips extended the shelf life of strawberries from 4 days to 6 days, and estimated it would save 800,000 strawberries from spoiling. Tesco is using the strips on avocados and tomatoes, and expects to save millions of fruits each year. The strips will also help prolong shelf life once you get your purchase home, too.
Technologies like these can make big reductions in food waste all along the chain, from the farm (to distributor to retailer) to your fridge. And if your fridge isn’t smart enough to suggest recipes tailored to its contents, you can always try a low-tech solution. Cookbooks, like The Frugal Foodie or Use It Up, help you make the most of your ingredients, and waste less.
[This post orginally appeared in GOOD, as part of a series on food waste.]