As much as 40 percent of the food we buy to cook and eat at home is wasted. Often it is lost at the back of the fridge until it goes moldy or rolls past its best-by date. According to designer Sehun Oh, fruit, vegetables, milk and bread are the four foods that people throw away the most. This makes some sense, given that they are not full of preservatives and chemicals. To address the problem, Sehun Oh has designed Foodee,
…a smart food organising system that consists of a smartphone app, a smart food scanner and a smart kitchen scale… the ‘foodee‘ app can give users the information of foods that will expire soon once a day and also recommends some recipes that can utilise the expiring ingredients.
It’s an interesting idea, but it raises as many questions as it answers. The first and most obvious problem is that it works by reading bar codes; in the video the user of the Foodee is scanning bananas in a plastic bag, notwithstanding that nature provides bananas with the perfect packaging. Other vegetables shown on the counter are damaged by being in bags; the vegetables give off ethylene gas, which ripens them, so by keeping them in bags, you ensure that they rot much faster. Processed and manufactured foods have barcodes, but fresh ingredients and stuff from the farmers market do not. Given that smartphones can now tap into databases in the cloud and tell apples from oranges, surely this scanner could do the same?
The second major problem is one that is less easily solved because it's structural, built into the North American system of how we buy and store our food. In Europe and Japan, most people have small fridges, and they tend to shop every day for fresh ingredients that they use right away. The food stands are located around the subway and transit terminals so that it’s easy and convenient to pick up produce on the way home. They don’t put fruit or even eggs in the fridge, so they don’t need a big one. In North America, people go to the store once a week and fill up with more than they need. (Over on TreeHugger, I call these fridges big wide expensive parking lots for food.)
Architect Donald Chong nailed the issue when he designed a stunning kitchen for a big design show and labeled it “Small fridges make good cities.” The premise is simple: If you have a small fridge you have to get out more, shop the local greengrocer, be part of your community. But instead, our fridges get bigger and bigger, as do the Walmarts and Costcos and the SUVs people need to carry it all home.
The Foodee suffers from the same problem as so many other smart devices we are seeing come onto the market: they try to address a problem that wouldn’t exist in the first place if our homes were designed properly, if our communities supported a healthier, more local way of living, or if people would take a moment to think about what they're doing.
For example, putting bananas and apples in a fridge together kills both of them; apples give off a lot of ethylene while bananas go ripe and then rotten almost instantly in its presence. Both should be on the counter where you can see them. Is the Foodee smart enough to know this, and adjust its messaging appropriately?
This is the fundamental problem with the high-tech approach to solving problems like food waste: We don’t need a fancy bar code scanner, we need good design and common sense.