Imagine that you’ve just gone to the supermarket, and returned home with two bags of groceries. You put food from one of the bags in your refrigerator and cupboard. Most of the second bag of food, however, goes straight in the trash. Essentially, this is what the average American household does regularly, though there’s a little more time between shopping and disposal. Studies estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of the food grown in the U.S. is wasted.

Every year, Americans send 55 million tons of food waste to municipal landfills — more than any other form of garbage. The waste comes from many sources, including produce rejected at farms, distribution centers, grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias and homes. Once in a landfill, the decomposing food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more potent than CO2. A large landfill can have the same climate impacts as 25,000 cars on the road.

Environmental issues also begin well before food reaches landfills.

“While the release of methane from landfills is significant, the energy embedded in food that’s wasted has a far greater environmental impact,” said Jonathan Bloom, author of the book American Wasteland. The embedded energy is spent in numerous ways: producing pesticides and fertilizers, powering irrigation, harvesting crops, and transporting, storing and refrigerating food at each step of the journey from farm to refrigerator.

Some foods have more impact than others. Certain meats, for example, are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that are a staggering 1351 percent greater than grains or nuts. Dairy products also have a higher impact, and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables produce more CO2 emissions than organics. But even organic food requires substantial resources to produce. In total, production of all wasted food in the U.S. accounts for the use of 300 million barrels of oil annually.

Emerging technological solutions for food waste at home: smart refrigerators and smart trash cans

Because of the scale of the problem, the potential for improvement is significant. Researchers at the University of Arizona have estimated that cutting American food waste in half could reduce total environmental impacts nationwide by 25 percent. In the U.K., the government reports that food production is responsible for 20 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and says that eliminating the waste of usable food would yield benefits similar to taking 1 in 5 cars off the road.

Solutions are beginning to emerge at all stages from farm to fork. For consumers, part of the challenge is keeping track of groceries and remembering to use them. With the average American dining out 4.8 times a week, it’s increasingly likely that fresh foods will be forgotten. Two new “smart refrigerators” have features designed to help.

The LG smart refrigerator, with the company’s “Smart Manager” technology, allows consumers to easily track the food stored inside. Using a smartphone app, consumers can scan a receipt to “tell” the fridge what they’re putting inside. Food can also be scanned via barcodes or entered by clicking on icons (useful for apples from a farmers’ market, for example).

The fridge knows where food is stored through a mapping feature of its interior. A quick glance at the exterior LCD panel, or a smartphone, displays what a family has on hand, and expiration dates of those items. The fridge can also suggest recipes based on the ingredients you have, and let you order new groceries directly from the fridge. Once you’re at the grocery store, you can use your phone to verify what you already have and what’s on your list — helping reduce duplicate purchases, as well as impulse buying.

LG sees consumer demand for these new features based on economics. “We understand that many consumers are budget conscious and wasted food equals wasted money,” said John Taylor, VP Electronics USA. “The freshness features in our refrigerators help consumers make the most of their food purchases.”

Samsung recently introduced a smart fridge with an LCD screen, WiFi, and recipe and grocery manager apps. Like the LG fridge, it can tell you what food you have, and where in the refrigerator it’s located. The Samsung fridge was introduced last fall, and the LG model will be coming out later this year.

In other parts of the world, some governments are actively working to reduce consumer food waste through technology. In South Korea (coincidentally, home to both LG and Samsung), citizens will soon be required to use new RFID-connected bins to weigh their food waste. The city of Seoul already requires composting, and charges consumers based on the amount of waste they create, but even more waste reduction is needed. The Korean government reports that the disposal of food waste costs the country more than $15 billion each year.

The new waste fee system will give city residents and business owners cards with unique RFID tags that can be used to open special waste bins. The bins automatically weigh the food waste and charge the fee to the user’s credit card. Korea hopes to expand the program nationwide and reduce food waste by 20 percent, saving billions of dollars and preventing 4 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Is more packaging better for the environment?

Grocery stores are another major source of food waste. A study of one Massachusetts chain found that each of their stores threw out over 800 pounds of food waste every day. For produce, a commonly discarded item, one solution to help reduce waste is new packaging technology. U.K. stores like Marks & Spencer and Tesco are now testing out packaging with strips that absorb ethylene, the chemical that causes fruit to ripen. Tesco is using the packaging with tomatoes and avocados first, and estimates that they may be able to save 1.6 million packs of tomatoes and 350,000 packs of avocados each year.

Many other packaging technologies also focus on dramatically improving shelf life. A new technology for packaging meat helps keep it fresh ten times longer, while also preserving a fresh appearance. The packaging, called “FreshCase,” promises to reduce waste by 75 percent, while also reducing packaging material by 75 percent. FreshCase even won a recent award for package innovation.

In Europe, a group of companies and researchers are collaborating on developing plant-based plastic packaging that can also reduce retailer food waste by 75 percent. The plastic will be made partially from food waste itself, and will contain “intelligent indicator systems” printed on packaging that can automatically monitor time, temperature and freshness.

However, the benefits of packaging go against conventional environmental thinking. David Dornfeld, head of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability at University of California, Berkeley, notes that while packaging waste should be minimized, packaging itself should be recognized as having true environmental benefits. “People tend to see packaging as an environmental villain because they just see the end of the process, when it ends up in the trash,” Dornfeld said. “But by preserving and protecting food throughout the system, it’s actually playing a critical role in helping improve sustainability.”

RFID tracking for food

Grocery stores may also soon be using RFID and GPS technology to track the location, temperature and age of food. California-based Intelleflex makes a system that can track food, either by package or by pallet, all the way from field to supermarket. Stores can reroute products with a shorter shelf life to closer locations, and send food with a longer shelf life to more distant locations.

In addition to making it easier for grocery stores to manage food that’s near its expiration date — and ideally, sell the food or donate it to a food bank rather than discarding it — RFID tags can also help eliminate the need to print “sell by” dates on food, which are often confusing to consumers. “Sell by” dates, even when printed next to separate “use by” dates, can increase food waste at home, when it’s not clear if the food is due to be discarded.

Online matchmaking: restaurant waste and food banks

Restaurants, another source of food waste, may soon have access to a new web and mobile app that has been designed to help connect food banks with discarded food. When a restaurant posts a donation on the site, volunteers are notified through text and app alerts. The organization, Zero Percent, hopes to eventually help connect restaurants and food banks throughout the U.S.

Beyond technology

Experts say that technology alone is not likely to be enough to solve the food waste crisis. “I put more stock in awareness and behavior change than tech,” said American Wasteland author Bloom. In some cases, very simple changes can make a difference — for example, school cafeterias that have tried removing trays (forcing students to take smaller portions) have reported waste reductions between 20 and 50 percent. In his book, Bloom argues that a myriad of other changes are necessary; for example, consumer attitudes against produce that’s anything less than perfect result in significant waste in farms, distribution centers and grocery stores as blemished fruit and vegetables are thrown out. Technology, Bloom says, is only one part of the solution.

Main photo credit: jbloom/Flickr; smart refrigerator graphic credit: Samsung; packaging photo credit: ItsFresh; RFID photo credit: Intelleflex; food bank photo credit: Walter Schwabe/Flickr; produce aisle photo copyright Adele Peters