Wi-Fi Meet My Fridge
Musings on how Internet-connected appliances and actionable data can help combat the problem of food waste.
Not that I necessarily favor the idea of having a TV and coffeemaker built into my fridge, but I do see a good business case for outfitting my big stainless appliance with a small display and connecting it to the Internet.
According to data cited in a National Resources Defense Council report, American households spend an extra $1,365 to $2,275 annually because families discard 14% to 25% of all purchased drink and food. This got me to thinking about a couple of scenarios that played out in my house recently.
While at home over the holidays, I received a text message: "Do we need cheese or sour cream?" I looked inside the fridge, and relayed that we had sour cream but no cheese. The next message arrived a short time later: "Is it expired?" Back to the fridge I went to inspect the expiration date.
Expired food had come into play just days before, too, while making our traditional New Year's deviled eggs. The recipe calls for horseradish, and ours was expired. After a little panic, I found another jar. It hadn't expired... but still I wondered about the one we still had had around even though it had expired two years earlier.
As I've written previously, actionable data really could benefit consumers. On a national level, embedding RFID tags into all food products and allowing discovery of them by a "smart" refrigerator could help solve the overspending and food waste problem mentioned above. The fridge's LCD could act as an inventory sheet showing expiration dates, and the first could deliver automated alerts to the household about approaching expirations. This would entail a low or marginally low-cost RFID tag on all date- sensitive food products, whether or not they require refrigeration.
Unfortunately, the idea of an intelligent, Internet-connected fridge has yet to really pan out (see the MIT Technology Review article, "The Tricky Problem Of Making Smart Fridges Smart"). .
The NRDC report makes several other observations about food waste from "farm to the fork," clearly showing the need for improvement. .
The NRDC report states that getting food from the farm to the consumer's table eats up 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses half of U.S. land, and swallows 80% of all freshwater consumed.
Just the nature of food, and that it is highly mobile, seems to make it an ideal candidate for an Internet of Things application managed via the wireless LAN. The food industry could examine the holistic process and make changes to reduce the 40% of food thrown out in the U.S. annually, amounting to $165 billion each year in garbage, which in turn creates significant methane gas, according to the NRDC report.
One interesting trend is the ability to use an app to pre-order from restaurants like Chic-fil-A, Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread, and Starbucks. These companies are trying to do more than capture new clients, retain existing ones, and keep up with competitive forces. Minimizing variances in business usually pays off. Predictability is also a positive force. With pre-order apps, restaurants can reduce labor costs and food waste.
The NRDC concludes by saying businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses, and save money. Wi-Fi and actionable metrics may have a key role in this effort.