Another AI target: food waste

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A hotel chain installs a camera in its trash can to spy on what guests are throwing away. Turns out her breakfast croissants are huge. A lot of people are getting lost — with a profit.

A supermarket may suddenly see hidden in its sales data that yellow onions are not selling as fast as red onions and are more likely to be thrown into the bin.

The brains behind both of these efforts: artificial intelligence.

It’s part of a burgeoning industry that’s trying to address an absurd human problem: the vast amounts of uneaten food that goes from supermarkets and restaurants to dumpsters. Much of it, if not composted, ends up in landfills where it decays, sending powerful planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Enter a new business opportunity. A company called Winnow has developed an AI tool that detects restaurant waste. Another, the company, Afresh, digests supermarket data to find spurious similarities between what the store is stocking, and what people are buying.

AI has its own messy environmental footprint. Crunching large amounts of data requires large amounts of electricity. Nor can AI (yet) replace what the human mind expects in modern, industrialized societies: an abundance of fresh avocados in the supermarket year-round, an ever-expanding variety of tiny plastic yogurt cups, happy hour. Loaded plates of nachos menu

Both companies are part of an emerging industry that is trying to solve the problem posed by the modern food industry. In the United States, one-third of the food grown is never eaten.

Globally, 1 billion metric tons of food was wasted in 2022, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Food waste accounts for 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equal to emissions from aviation and shipping.

“It’s a problem that literally goes away,” said Mark Zorns, founder of Winnow, which works with restaurants, hotels and institutional caterers.

Adding to the problem: confusing “best by” and “best by” labels on food products that result in edible food being thrown into the trash.

Signs of progress are emerging from a group of supermarket chains that have voluntarily pledged to reduce food waste at their operations in the western United States and Canada. Between 2019 and 2022, the eight chains that are part of the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment Project reported a 25 percent reduction in their total amount of unsold food.

They also reported donating more food to charities and sending more of their waste to composting facilities, which are rare, rather than landfills.

“This shows that the national goal of halving food waste by 2030 may, indeed, be possible, but we will need dramatically more action across all sectors of the food system to make it happen.” said Dana Gunders, head of the research and advocacy group Refed, which tracks volunteer project data.

There are many new tools now available to help retailers reduce waste. Some startups, like Apple and Mori, offer coatings for fresh produce so they don’t spoil as quickly. An app called FlashFood connects users to discounted meals at grocery stores, such as Too Good to Go, which connects users to restaurants and grocers that sell extra food at a discount.

Fresh’s technology crunches nearly six years of sales data on every product in the fresh foods section of the grocery store it works with. Its AI tool could divine when people buy avocados, and at what price. It can mash that up with data on how quickly avocados go bad and, in turn, advise on how many avocados to stock.

If the Easter egg-painting season traditionally brings high sales of eggs, it can predict how many more eggs the store should order, and also how many more bell peppers because shoppers usually have extra at home. Make an omelet with eggs.

Matt Schwartz, co-founder of Afresh, said AI will offer more accurate information about many more products than an experienced store manager might know. For example, it might recommend that the store manager order 105 eggs instead of 110 the week before Easter. “Every single case matters,” he said.

In addition, said Suzanne Long, sustainability chief at Albertsons, which uses FreshTech, experienced store managers are increasingly rare. “What AI is doing is giving us precision. Not just ‘I need to order onions,’ but ‘this type of onion,'” he said.

Ms Long said the chain had reduced food waste but declined to say how much.

Winnow installs cameras above trash cans in restaurant kitchens. The images are fed into an algorithm that can tell the difference between half a pan of lasagna (expensive) and a banana peel (not so much). A group of Hilton hotels that introduced the tool recently found that many of its breakfast pastries were too large — and that the baked beans were often left incomplete.

Refed, a research group, found in its 2022 projections that 70 percent of food wasted in restaurants is food left on the plate, signaling the need to rethink portion sizes.

Mr. Zorns works primarily with hotels and cafeterias. He estimates that restaurants waste between 5 and 15 percent of the food they buy. “It’s an obvious problem that everybody knows about,” Mr Zorns said. “It’s clearly a problem we’re not solving.”

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