CES 2023: These startups are using tech to help reduce global food waste

Avocados can be tricky. Their maturity window is so narrow that tons of memes make fun of the art of deciding when to eat them.

Dutch entrepreneur Marco Snikkers aims to solve that problem with an avocado scanner, unveiled this week at the CES technology show in Las Vegas, designed for use in supermarkets.

Optical sensing and artificial intelligence technology determine ripeness, showing on-screen whether an avocado is firm or ready to eat.

Snikkers’ startup OneThird isn’t just trying to reduce frustration in the kitchen. According to the United Nations, around one-third of all food produced globally is wasted. That means all the carbon emitted to grow, transport and distribute food goes to waste.

“It’s a big problem,” Snickers said. “It’s a trillion-dollar problem for our world, with huge impacts on carbon dioxide emissions and water use.”

OneThird is one of several startups at this year’s CES that are working on different parts of a problem, from helping the food industry limit what it throws away to offering a quick composting solution to help keep food scraps out of methane-producing landfills outside.

OneThird is already working with growers, distributors and others along the supply chain to predict the shelf life of avocados, tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries. It will further expand its ability to determine the ripeness of more produce later this year, with the aim of helping reduce the amount of food wasted around the world. This month, it’s testing a consumer-friendly avocado scanner at a Canadian supermarket.

Another Dutch entrepreneur, Olaf van der Veen, is trying to help restaurants reduce food waste, much of which happens in the kitchen before it’s even served to customers.

His device, Orbisk, uses a camera positioned above a trash can to scan any food that is about to be thrown out. In addition to looking at the type of food, the amount, and the time of day, “we can also look at whether it’s on a plate, in a pan, on a cutting board, which provides indirect information about why food is missing,” van der Veen said.

Orbisk organizes and shares these insights with restaurants so they can understand their disposal patterns, helping them save money and reduce food waste, thereby reducing emissions and water use.

The startup’s equipment is in commercial kitchens in about 10 European countries, with some customers as far afield as India.

Even with some excess food donated, the US wastes more food per restaurant than Europe, he said. That’s why the company is at CES, he said, hoping to further expand its emerging markets.

Reducing the amount of food that is wasted is desirable, but keeping thrown away food out of landfills is the next best thing.

When food scraps are properly composted, they release carbon dioxide as part of the biological process of turning them into nutrient-rich soil. When food gets trapped in landfills, the decomposition process produces methane — a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming because its short-term punch is even more than 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

The 2006 London Protocol banned the dumping of food waste into the ocean, prompting South Korea to establish a mandatory composting system. While the infrastructure allows for the proper disposal of almost all food waste in the country, residents must haul bags of food to designated curbside bins.

Reencle aims to simplify that process. The metal trash can is an ultra-fast composting system shown at this year’s CES that can help families reduce a kilogram of food scraps by 90% in just 24 hours.

Marketing director Jinhwi Bang said that while the product has sold tens of thousands of units in South Korea, Reencle’s parent company, Hanmi Flexible, hopes to expand into overseas markets.

how so fast The device uses self-replicating microbes to turn waste into compost. Its rival Lomi grinds and dehydrates food scraps, requiring the by-product to be mixed with soil before composting, while Reencle says its by-product can be composted directly.

Mark Murray, executive director of Anti-Litter California, said he hopes people don’t think composting doesn’t require advanced technology.

But he said he understands that not everyone has a yard or a patio, and that “all the tools in the toolbox have to be on the table.”

Technology is part of the solution. But Murray said economic incentives and systemic change are other key factors in reducing global food waste.

“We need to make it more expensive to waste food,” he said. “This will incentivize commercial businesses, restaurants, stores and even consumers to invest in systems and technology to ensure we don’t waste food.”

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