Argentina is the country we associate with meat and gauchos. Ever since the Spanish conquistadors brought their cattle to South America in the 1500s, Argentinians have been occupied with becoming one of the largest producers and consumers of red meat. Even now, a visitor to Buenos Aires finds a culture of BBQ, with haunches of beef and pork grilling and filling the air with the smoky aroma of meat ready to eat. Early in the morning, trucks move up and down quiet streets cleared from the previous night’s revelry, filled with firewood to replenish the parillas. Meat is just about everyone’s business. Just ask Ruben.
Ruben works at a pork processing plant housed in two buildings in Lomas del Mirador, a neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His plant houses meat grinders, chopping tables, walk-in refrigerators, and sausage stuffing equipment. Trucks rumble in and out of the loading dock delivering Argentinian beef and pork as Ruben’s team members, dressed in their white uniforms, trim, chop, and mince meat into the various products on order from customers in Buenos Aires. He is hard at work in the part of our food supply chain that makes most of us uncomfortable: processing, packaging, and storing food.
Ruben and his team take care of all the processing their sausages require for a consumer who’s planning a barbecue, but if those sausages are going on a pizza or into a ready-to-heat jambalaya, then they’re not done yet. Even when we consider that our food has to be processed at some point along the supply chain, we may not consider how many times it’s processed. We think the familiar food brand is the processor, but that company may employ countless other secondary processors you’ve never heard of along the way. Called “food manufacturing” by some in the business, many food-processing companies operate quietly between ingredients and well-known food brands. Consider tomato sauce: the tomatoes are sorted, boxed, cooked, pureed, stored, combined with other ingredients such as cheese and spices, canned, boxed again, stored, and packaged again. That pizza in Joe’s shop incorporates dozens of ingredients that have been transformed along the way to New York City.
Some talk about this part of our food supply chain as one of intermediation, when the flow of our food encounters activities that intervene, interrupt, and handle our food on the way to our plates. During this phase, our food is handled, packed, processed, transformed, packaged, and stored. So many people, so many hands. So many opportunities for, well, anything.
The processing and manufacturing of food relieves us of our romantic, personal, and human connection with our dinner. We whinge at the image of a hamburger oozing with pink slime and cringe at extruders as they draw out strings of bread dough to make puffy buns. The idea of stainless steel paddles blending seaweed into ice cream to enhance its texture just doesn’t seem logical, much less desirable. Today our minds and bodies tell us that we want minimally processed food, made close by, that is untampered and unfettered and unadulterated. God forbid our avocado meets a robot that almost surgically removes its large pit, or that the seed disappears altogether because of an overaccommodating genetic engineer. Oh, that did happen, when Marks and Spencer announced its pitless avocado in December 2017.
Food evangelists today preach the merits of minimal processing. Simplicity, they say, leaves food in its pristine, natural condition. One of these evangelists is food writer Michael Pollan. His first rule for healthy eating is to eat “real” food with ingredients that are “closest to the way you might encounter them at their source.”1 But when you get down to it, all food is processed. Hazardous chemicals and industrial machinery certainly play their parts, but even the crudest ingredients require some kind of processing. When grain farmers harvested barley ten thousand years ago, they used stones to grind the grain into flour. That’s processing. And so is washing and chopping the lettuce you picked from your garden before you toss it in a salad. It’s the degree of processing and manufacturing that those who debate quality and sustainability focus on. Some of us will tolerate nothing more than washing our vegetables, while others crave the umami of barbeque sauce on Texas brisket.
But no matter how much we desire simple, unadulterated food, the reality is that, if we want our food to be healthy, flavorful, safe, and convenient, we don’t have a way around the steps of processing, packaging, and storing our food. Many of these processes are required by laws designed to protect public health, and whether we agree with them or not, these regulations are here to stay—even if technology improves food safety and monitoring.
Ruben is one of millions of people working for companies that are engaged in food processing. Most of these companies work behind the scenes, invisible to the consumer. That’s by design. We really don’t want to see how the sausage is made, and if we did, we’d observe activities that might seem inhuman and industrial, pretty much replacing the face of that friendly pig farmer with images of the machinery and slime involved in Ruben’s operation. When we imagine the way food travels to our plates, we often omit the part Ruben and his team play, in order to preserve our appetites. That conflict between our imagined food supply chain and the optimized food supply chain is rooted in this aspect of processing.
The technology that goes into transforming our food makes it unsettling. Food scientists, after all, design our flavors not from the ground up but from inside the lab. These scientists often see our food as a set of ingredients known for their chemical properties. They are often disconnected from those of us who see food as sensation, a memory, and an experience that is far more social and cultural than scientific. Nutritionists and food scientists are critical contributors to the solutions we seek to improve our food supply, but they are often tone deaf to the desires of consumers who recoil at the unpronounceable chemical names on our food packaging. At Food+City’s Food Challenge Prize Competition, we add points for startups that not only created a new food or process but that also paid attention to our five senses. Never mind that a startup had a winning idea for a new insect flour; if it looked unappealing, no matter how nutritious, we knew the product would have trouble in the marketplace. Food processing and packaging must improve and preserve flavor, texture, smell, and—when it comes to insects—it must minimize the sound of crunching chitin.
We want better stories about our food—ones that preserve the human touch while benefiting from food science and technology. We know more about our food now, and we are ready for a smarter discussion about how to use technology to make our food better, safer, and knowable. Food scientists are getting the message, and at the annual conference of the Institute of Food Technologists, more than twenty thousand attendees display natural additives, often making food feel and taste more authentic (whatever that means). We could fall back on Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a nineteenth-century French gastronome who described our sense of taste as that “. . . which enables us to distinguish all that has a flavor from that which is insipid.” But what tastes “insipid” to a Texan may be considered too spicy by the French. We should be wary of developing technically and scientifically “good” food without considering taste: our sensory and cultural connection to what makes us human.
The language used within the food industry adds to the lack of understanding of food processing. And that language influences our attitudes about food and its march into our digital world. (Dan Jurafsky’s 2015 book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, contains an insightful discussion about the way language reflects our relationship to food.) Describing food as “manufactured” instead of “produced” or “made” can be fatal to its consumer appeal. Using scientific terms to describe food also makes us gag. Imagine if we looked at an ingredient label affixed to a banana and read the following: Water (75%), sugar (12%), glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, starch, fiber, amino acids, and so on, to describe its ingredients. Not so appealing. So as we introduce the language of engineering into our digital food processing and packaging world, we need to be aware that our attitudes may need some adjustment. We want more transparency about the food supply chain and these intermediate steps, but are we ready for the information?
Ruben knows what goes into his sausages. He is a food scientist by training and has spent twenty-five years in the meatpacking business. He led me to a chilled meat processing room where we found stainless steel tables piled high with pig carcasses already cut into quarters and medium cuts. Workers had hefted these carcasses off the meat hooks inside a small truck that had been backed into the processing room. Occasional grunts revealed that this move took quite some physical effort, even for the stocky workmen. A group of human muscles heaving a group of animal muscles.
Ruben oversees a dozen men, clad in white suits and hairnets, who are bumping bags of pork, ham hocks, and trotters against each other, flashing sharp knives and tossing offal into brimming buckets beneath the tables. The working space is clean, constantly rinsed by water and cleaning fluids, but at some point Ruben will need more cutting tables, buckets, and meat processors to deal with increasing demand for Argentinian pork. Cheek to jowl, there’s no room to move without jostling the man cutting next to you.
After watching the choreography required to empty the small truck and prepare meat for processing, we wandered upstairs where the sausage takes shape. Workers in pristine whites, boots, and hairnets swung into action, sliding trays of cut-up pork meat into the jowls of the steel meat grinder. From a room containing buckets of spices come the seasonings that will be mixed into the ground pork, including carmine. The natural red coloring for some of the popular red sausages, carmine comes from the same bugs used to make cochineal, the deep red, natural dye we used to color sheep wool on our farm. One worker pours in the spices and dye, mixing the meat with a large shovel. Steel tubs of ground pork become seasoned chorizo, some batches red and others not.
Meanwhile, on another stainless-steel bench, workers slip a casing—made, in this case, of pig intestine—onto a sausage filler, which opens the casing to enable the sausage meat to fill the tube. Ruben’s workers slip the stuffer into the casings with lightning speed, inching up the casing while extruding pork meat into the tube as the next worker spins off lengths of string, tying the filled casing in increments of six to seven inches.
Aside from food processing, but still very connected, are the activities of packing and storing food. All lie in the middle of the food supply chain where raw materials transform into food products that are packaged and stored until they reach us. At the heart of this chapter are the four ingredients we cited earlier: trust, reliability, adaptability, and technology. When it comes to processing, packaging, and storage, trust looms as an essential ingredient.
These processing activities directly relate to how our food tastes, whether it lasts long enough to reach our plates, and whether it’s safe to eat. They also directly impact the amount of food waste we generate. If we don’t like the taste, if it’s unsafe to eat, or if it spoils or is damaged in transit . . . all these failures lead food to the landfill.
You could argue that Ruben is an integral part of the industrialized food system, but you’d only be partly right. Though the human side of these activities is critical and may not be easy to automate yet, it does seem likely that Ruben and his team will eventually be replaced—by robots. The digitization of our food system begins on the ground with hardware and software that provides “precision agriculture.” But it gets into high gear in when it comes to processing, packaging, and storing our food. Are humans on their way out of our food supply chain? Most likely, but only in the areas that require repetitive, physically demanding work that would benefit from more control over food and human safety.
Ruben likes his work, he says, and it provides him with more than just a job. While we were visiting one of his pig farmers, three hours away, I got a chance to know Ruben outside of his managerial role at the meat processing shop. During one long stretch of Argentinian highway, I asked about his family. He paused and then said, “It’s a sad story.” His eyes filled with tears as he drove, and he recounted how his wife passed away a week after giving birth to his now two-year-old daughter. His job, he confessed, was the only thing that held him together, providing one place in his life that remained unchanged, a distraction from the turmoil and a place to find solace and connection.
The human side of industrialized food processing surfaced in that moment. Ruben isn’t alone in his emotional connection to his job. Globally, food processors are often immigrants who see their work as a stabilizer and, at a minimum, a means for survival in their new countries. While the gears that drive the machinery matter, the soft parts of the system’s underbelly are the human beings that drive the food system.2 While humans have always been essential in the processing system, the repetitive and labor-intensive jobs are increasingly automated as more science and technology enters the chain. How will workers like Ruben adapt to an increasingly automated food system?
In some ways, the replacement of humans in our food supply chain may be a good thing from the perspective of the safety and health of this workforce. Since Sinclair Lewis and Rudyard Kipling documented the humans working in American slaughterhouses, we have become increasingly aware of poor working conditions in many of the fields and factories that bring us our food. Immigrant farm workers, meat processors, truck drivers, and warehouse pickers have worked in conditions that fail to meet our contemporary expectations for work and the treatment of our fellow humans who make our food.
Automated fillers, trained to know more about filling casing than any humans performing the task today, will eventually replace Ruben’s crew at the casing machines. Is this a good thing? One wonders what people like Ruben will do after the robots arrive. He is content with his work, but many others aren’t and may be replaced by robots and other technologies. We should be helping these individuals develop the skills to move into redefined jobs or maybe entirely different jobs. More work is needed to consider the future of work. Consulting firms such as McKinsey are weighing the impact of this emerging new workforce and predict that while the Rubens in our global food system may lose their jobs, they will find opportunities in new jobs, some not entirely imagined as yet. These new jobs will pay more and require new skills. Previous technological revolutions point to this evolution of old jobs to new jobs requiring new skills. The transition, though, will be messy, requiring new educational platforms and the ability to move quickly as we adapt our existing academic institutions.
When robots assemble our food, will we be able to taste the difference? Maybe not. And it may be that we will overlook a more mechanized, engineered food system as a tradeoff for greater transparency and food safety, less environmental impact, and improved labor practices.
Whether we like hearing about it or not, the truth is that ingredients we need to consume for our health often taste bad or have a yucky feel in our mouths, so food scientists have come along to enhance healthy food to make it palatable. Increasingly, food companies are replacing synthetic additives with natural ingredients so that we continue to want to consume tomato sauce, for example.
Flavor is critical. Have you eaten one of those nutrition bars that is packed with healthy ingredients? Do you savor the sticky, chalky texture, the specious caramel, chocolate, strawberry flavor that settles onto your palate for hours afterward? Me neither. Flavor scientists have tried to make an appetizing nutrition bar for decades. Their success, of course, hinges on flavor. And food processing, packaging, and storage all influence flavor. Processing is just the first stop on the path to the sensation Doritos calls a “party in your mouth.”3
How would you feel if you ordered an ice cream cone and, instead of the smooth, creamy texture you know and love, you were handed a chunky glob of ice crystals? What you don’t want to know is that your ice cream looks and feels the way it does because we add carrageenan (a linear sulphated polysaccharide found in red seaweed) during processing. The thought may turn your stomach, but without the carrageenan, so would your ice cream. These seemingly contradictory values—natural versus unnatural, seaweed from the ocean, and chemical additives—create distrust and doubt about any interference in the native state of what we eat. And most of the additions occur elsewhere, out of sight, obscuring our knowledge of the process.
One additive that has become a reviled ingredient in our food is sugar. Food scientists who are responding to consumers’ concern over sugar in their diet are fiddling with the chemistry of food to create sweetness with less sugar, both artificially and naturally. How do we feel about this? The mash-up of our health, convenience, safety, and general personal values around technology and food creates a cognitive dissonance that will only be amplified when we use more technology in the making of our food. Like making meat in a petri dish, these scientific, technical approaches to food straddle the line between our desire for simple, pure, and healthy food and that yearning for convenience that has inspired us to accept more tech in other parts of our lives.
Some processing entails adding micro-ingredients to enhance the healthful attributes of our food. Food manufacturers add vitamins to bread flours that were stripped from the grain when the bran was removed. Consumers who prefer white bread still need the vitamins, so they are added back in. We find this ironic, if not exasperating: nature produces the optimum package of vitamins, and humans remove them then add them back in. It’s one of those pesky paradoxes that lurk in our food supply chain and make its improvement complicated. Our consumer preferences sometimes move us in the wrong direction when it comes to simple, clean food. For centuries, white bread has been considered refined, a sign of civilized eating—not the coarse bread of the poor. Why do you think that brown loaf in the bakery is still called “peasant bread”?
Pickles are a good example of how all these intervening steps roll in the food supply chain. They begin as cucumbers, then they’re combined with ingredients, such as sugar, salt, vinegar, and maybe turmeric and alum for color and shelf life. Large stainless steel vats filled with salt and water brine the cucumbers. Blanchers are vats of boiling water used to conserve flavor and appearance. Slicing the pickles before canning settles them in vinegar and other spices and makes room for more pickles in the can or bottle. Seamers attach lids to the cans that pass through a pasteurizing process, and caps go on bottled pickles before pasteurizing. All these processing and packing processes are just for a simple pickle.
Pizzas, too, as we’ve learned, involve multiple supply chains that incorporate similar additives and technology. Each step of these processes can use improvement, and folks in related industries are finding ways to include fewer and more natural additives while keeping the food in its simplest form for human consumption. We understand this even while our current quick stop grocery stores are bulging with processed snacks that defy definition. The plastic-wrapped, cream-filled croissant I saw in a convenience store on a pit stop during a recent road trip combined all the worst nightmares about food in one glance. Those croissants sit way outside the conversation in this book about improvements to our food system, but we should aim for a future when they, too, can exist with fewer and more natural ingredients. Let’s hope.
But processing for health isn’t all about unnatural additives. Fire chemically transformed food into nutrients at least twelve thousand years ago, when baking bread turned grain into a digestible source of carbohydrates. Heat breaks down raw ingredients, making proteins and carbohydrates more palatable for humans. It also makes some ingredients that would otherwise be toxic safe to eat. Like cassava—which releases a form of cyanide if not properly processed and cooked—and kidney beans. In addition to heating, grinding, extruding, fermenting, smoking, and even soaking make our food more digestible and palatable. Even the process of shelling makes peas digestible by minimizing the insoluble fiber our bodies need to break down—just another example of how our food supply chain ingrains technology as a way of bringing food to our plates.
Fermentation is another way to transform ingredients to make them more digestible. By observing the natural process of fermentation brought on by bacteria, we have discovered bread, wine, beer, and cheese making. Olives would be unpalatable if it weren’t for the lye used in the fermentation process. About 4,000 years ago, Sumerians were known for beer making, utilizing almost half of their grain production for brewing.4
One of the key reasons food is processed and packaged is to extend its lifetime, ensuring it remains safe to eat from the time it leaves the field to the time it reaches our plate. Unless we were willing to live next door to our farmers or grow our own food and consume it right after harvest, our unprocessed food would be wasted. Anything that can be done along the supply chain to extend the time a food product or ingredient is viable increases the revenue potential and decreases food waste.
Life extenders include additives such as salt, environmental controls such as heating and cooling, and packaging and storage technologies. For example, the arrival of canning and pasteurization technology in the nineteenth century extended the life of many perishable foods. Our pickle is a picture of life-prolonging processes.
Preservation techniques often get a bad rap, and we frequently find ourselves scanning grocery shelves for food that is “free from added preservatives.” But not all preservatives are unnatural. Salt, which likely brings to mind that blue package from Morton, featuring the young girl under a yellow umbrella, has been valuable as a preservative and sanitizer at least since Biblical times. Ice, too, is a valuable—and natural—shelf-life extender, as anyone who’s ever filled up a cooler with hot dogs and burger patties to take to a cookout can attest. (Granted, the technology that keeps our freezers at the right temperature involves chemical processes that could stand improvement, but that’s a story for another day.)
Shelf life doesn’t just refer to the shelves at the grocery store or in your pantry. It’s about keeping food consumer-ready during its journey to our plates—and at every stop along the way. This means ensconcing it in bulk packages such as sacks, bags, and kegs, and storing it safely in holding points—including roadside pallets in the field, warehouses and distribution centers, shipping containers, silos, and even caves—between each leg of the journey. But the big idea is that shelf life relates to food safety, which builds trust between consumers and producers.
And the failure to produce safe food leads to a breach in that trust, causing no end of troubles for food companies. Chipotle may never fully come back from its E. coli outbreaks. Beginning in 2013, food safety breaches caused the company’s sales to decline. Although recovering, the company has continued to have food safety problems, leading to such jokes as “You can’t spell Chipotle without E. coli.” While they usually remain in business, food companies that experience food safety problems take years to reestablish trust between their brands and their consumers.
There’s another way to eliminate the processing and packaging required to extend shelf life. The alternative is to shorten the distance between the production and consumption of food, and the local food movement’s greatest impact might be the removal of any transformation of food for the purpose of extending shelf life. And with the effort to move food production closer to us, shortening the distance and time it takes to reach our tables, shelf life may not be as critical. With the increased speed of delivery (see Amazon Fresh, and 7Fresh in China), the arrival of food to our plates within twenty-four hours of harvest may become the norm. Still, even local food producers would like a little leeway in their delivery schedules, and the grocery stores can sell more food if it’s on the shelf. One day lost on the shelf equates to lost revenue. The need to preserve and protect our food over the time required to travel long distances won’t disappear, but it may be revised to minimize additives and wasteful packaging between the pasture and our plates.
The proximity of processing to storage facilities and production sites can influence shelf life. The co-location of breweries with bakeries indicates a co-evolution of those two foods and their associated transformation by fermentation. If a rancher has to transport his steers hundreds of miles to a slaughterhouse, he may end up delivering stressed, dehydrated stock after months of careful husbandry. A dairy farmer will pay more to transport tanker cars of milk to a processor over a long distance than he might if he delivered powdered milk. And a truckload of lettuce will certainly expire if it sits too long in traffic. Most efforts to increase shelf life are rooted in food processing and preservation.
The proximity of our food sources to our plates influences how we process our food and our proclivity for convenience. Ever tried to buy a bushel of bananas or a tank car of milk? Packaging allows us to break down bulk food into bite sized, or at least personal, quantities. While primarily known for their convenience, these smaller portions also limit food waste. The amount of waste we produce tends to accumulate over time, since we often have to buy more food than is possible to consume before it spoils. And food spoils from the minute it leaves the farm, compromising the quality of our food the longer it lingers on its path toward our plate.
We may have perfect intentions to use everything we purchase on a Sunday shopping trip, but by Friday we realize the remainder of our milk has spoiled, the leftover shredded cheese is beginning to mold, and the celery we tossed back in the fridge after pulling off a stalk for the soup has now wilted. One solution is to buy food in stores that offer bulk ingredients so we can purchase just the amount of cheese we need that week. Another is shopping more often and buying smaller quantities. But making frequent trips to a grocery store isn’t the most efficient use of time and resources.
Convenient portion size is just one role of packaging. Packaged, prepared foods also provide convenience in the sense that they minimize the time it takes to put a meal on the table. Without prepared, processed tomato sauce, we’d be in the kitchen with a pile of tomatoes to peel, onions and garlic to chop, and herbs to wash and mince. While our first food-reform heroes urged us all to return to the kitchen to make our own meals, the current innovators focus on the relationship of food and technology as it minimizes kitchen labor and maximizes the time we spend socializing with friends and working on projects that we deem worthy. Saving the world, for example.
One example of this is the development of technology for making instant coffee. Sudden Coffee, based in San Francisco, uses a new technique for making an instant cup of joe that matches consumer expectations for high-end coffee. While it seems a bit inconsistent—a product reduced to its industrial form for a consumer who savors the allure of a pour-over made in the local café—this product represents the tradeoff between convenience and authenticity. This trend doesn’t mean some of us won’t be making our own bread or stirring grandmother’s tomato sauce. But only a few of us will be called, and still fewer of us will spend long hours at the kitchen stove.
We want to balance the convenience of tech-driven connection with a yearning for convenience that enables us to foster and enjoy those human connections. We want good, healthy food but not at the expense of the time we have to be with each other. Many of us have already made that choice, opting for a fast food drive-through so we can still make our daughter’s soccer match or buying ready-made hamburgers in bulk so we can have a tailgate party while minimizing the expense and time of handmade, grass-fed burgers. But more and more, we’ll see processed food and packaging that will bring us fresher, healthier, prepared food at lower costs. Sure, we’ll miss the hours we spent in the community garden or at the farmers’ market, but we can always go there as an antidote to our technology-driven lives. Besides, our community gardens may become our kitchen gardens, controlled with our phone apps and producing small quantities of fresh greens to top our prepared meals.
Where does Ruben’s story fit in with all this? The sausage casing in Ruben’s facility near Buenos Aires is just the first round of packaging for the sausage coming out of Ruben’s plant. It will go on to be wrapped in paper at a butcher’s shop or in plastic at the supermarket. It may even wind up in a Styrofoam box or aluminum foil wrapper as leftovers in somebody’s fridge. The packages that cosset our food pose enormous challenges, since most of the food waste we observe is consumer packaging. To see what I mean, take a look at what’s in your refrigerator right now. Yes, the plastic jug of milk, foil-wrapped leftovers from last night’s steak, a cardboard carton of cream, paper-wrapped butter, just to name a few items. In your pantry, your shelves contain several cereal boxes and cellophane bags of nuts. For a sobering look at food packaging, take a look into your kitchen garbage can. While we are encouraged not to waste a half-eaten meal in a restaurant, we are also expected to take our remaining food home in a container that will keep it safe until it reaches our refrigerator.
OK, so food packaging is piling up all around us, but packaging is about more than filling landfills or protecting individual servings of your favorite snack. Packages are filled with stories about their contents, including nutritional data, measurements, sourcing information, recipes, pricing, and lifespan. They also protect the contents from harm, spoilage, wastage, and in some cases, loss. Packaging provides portion control, sanitation, and protection from vibration and temperature fluctuations. A good package does all of this and more. A bad package sends food into the waste bin.
Food packaging and related activities in our food supply chain are important to our vision for how we can improve our food system in the future. Since we assume we will produce enough food to feed the world if we can solve for distribution, we need to consider how it will travel, in what quantities, and the role that packaging could play in maintaining shelf life while minimizing both food and packaging waste.
Future packaging solutions will rely on innovation from the material sciences, biotechnology, and food science. Early inventors of food packaging, and the materials scientists and engineers of today, contribute to the art and science of containing our food. The art communicates brand information and messaging; the science adds knowledge of chemistry, materials, and nutrition. Art and science together make the total package.
Cardboard, Styrofoam, recycled pellets, and plastic containers carry our food in trucks, on ships and trains, in bike couriers’ insulated bags, and in the back seats of our cars. But packaging, not to mention the knowledge of what travels best in what materials over specific distances, hasn’t always had the support of technology, sophisticated materials scientists, or even environmentally conscious consumers.
The history of packaging follows the history of logistics. As military planners sought improved methods for moving their armies in sync with supply chains, they also sought methods for limiting spoilage of the food they did manage to procure along the way. Canning and sterilization were the first modern, military-inspired packaging technologies that appeared as the industrial revolution began in the late eighteenth century.
Before then, packaging and storing food relied on techniques developed in antiquity. Natural materials including clay, glass, leather, wood, and tin took on shapes for specific food commodities, and these handmade receptacles provided short-term packaging and storage as early as 7000 BCE.5 The Egyptians began to fabricate glass containers at scale in 1500 BCE, and glass began to replace leather and pottery sometime in the mid-seventeenth century.6
Taken in its simplest form, food comes in its own packaging: bananas have peels, grapes have skins, and walnuts have shells. The casing process in Ruben’s plant—fairly innocent as far as packaging goes—is a skill that no doubt took hours of practice. Ruben set up a small “sausage school” in the corner for novices to try their hands at filling and tying off meters of sausage before qualifying for the big table in the center of the room. Back down in the cutting room, the process begins all over again.
Once we process our food, it needs some sort of containment and protection to maintain freshness and provide a barrier from contamination as it makes its way to your plate. The success of a food supply chain depends upon the integrity of a package. A crushed box, broken bottle, or pierced bag cannot make its way to our plate no matter how well the traffic flows. Packaging defends our food as it battles the elements and bangs along the interior of a shipping container.
Key considerations for packaging food include limiting water loss, regulating flow of oxygen, and preventing loss of nutrients or flavors. Have you ever left garlic bread in a bag with a chocolate chip cookie, only to find your sweet cookie is infused with garlic? Called cross-contamination, the transference of bacteria, odors, or foreign matter is a risk throughout the supply chain.
The material and physical shape of a package is specific to the requirements of the supply chain and often the food itself. Beer and other beverages work well in glass bottles because the contents expand during fermentation. Some package designs address transport needs throughout the supply chain, such as beer kegs that were once rolled down narrow alleys. Packaging also influences handling and storing of food, eventually affecting product sales. For example, the shape and size of a food package will influence how many can be packed in a case. If cases are cumbersome or too heavy for personnel, stores aren’t likely to keep stocking that product.
Retail packaging, another way of describing individual packaging, comes in countless shapes and sizes—even for similar products. Consider potato chips: A general store in Maine carries Lay’s potato chips, delivered weekly in boxes of single-serving plastic bags. Another company, Kellogg’s, sells their own potato chips, Pringles, in a cardboard tube. The Pringles package design was a response to consumer objection to broken chips and the amount of air in the plastic bags. Whether we prefer bags or tubes, those uniquely designed and manufactured food packages are for us, the consumers—not the chipmakers. Before reaching consumers, food ingredients travel in much less glamorous wholesale and bulk containers, like burlap bags of potatoes destined for a Lay’s chip factory or barrels of wine on their way to the bottler. These containers are for bulk delivery of food without all the marketing messaging and sexy wrapping. They are meant to endure vibration, shocks, temperature variation, and warehousing.
Food-related regulations also affect packaging designs, from labeling requirements to the size, weight, and shape of food-specific packaging. For example, package sizes need to match pallet standards such as those developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), and Federal Drug Administration (FDA) regulations dictate the amount of air in a cereal box.
But there’s more to consider in package design than what it takes to keep food safe, delicious, and intact. Producers must also consider costs, which are dictated by the weight, size, and shape of a package. Some shippers, like UPS, charge more for the type of bulky packaging required to maintain safe temperatures—an even more complicated request for cold-chain shipments. Packagers are working on lighter materials that will result in less waste, require less fuel in transport, and decrease shipping costs. In the meantime, how big is the tradeoff? How much cost can we save without sacrificing the quality or safety of our food while it moves through the supply chain?
What about those soggy pads you find hidden underneath your hamburger meat? Part of the cold chain, meats require packaging that enhances appearance and shelf life. The pads use food-grade polymer materials to absorb moisture. Some packaging actually removes moisture from produce through the carton materials, and other materials such as IceWrap—frozen sheets similar to gel packs—go inside packaging to maintain cool temperatures throughout the supply chain.7 What goes into the package is almost as important as what goes into our food. And it’s just one more thing that contributes to food waste.
The materials inside and outside the food package reveal more than meets the eye. Nina Katchadourian has an eye for storytelling. She’s a conceptual artist who has created stories out of popcorn machines and other cultural artifacts. One of her installations, The Genealogy of the Supermarket, was on exhibit at the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin in 2017. The exhibit consisted of framed faces on food labels arranged in the pattern of a family tree, each image portraying someone that represented an iconic food brand: Uncle Ben, Chef Boyardee, Aunt Jemima, and the Morton Salt Girl, to name a few. The artist arranged and grouped almost eighty portraits to suggest that they all represented one big family tree. Viewers of the exhibit brought their own associations with the food brands and the faces on the packaging. Judging from this art installation, food labels tell some pretty surprising stories. But a label is more than just another pretty face. (In chapter 5, we will show how labels come in handy during the tracing and tracking of our food.)
Labels have been a way to identify food in the supply chain since the Romans labeled their oil- and wine-carrying amphora with clay stamps, and trademarks and branding developed from the practice of branding cattle, which began in Egypt around 2000 BCE. Still, it wasn’t until consumer culture developed that packaging became more than just a generic container.8 Eighteenth- and nineteenth- century newspapers in England and the United States illustrate elaborate food packaging that describes the attributes of the contents. These early labels were crammed with information and product claims, usually hyperbolic. Since then, stamps, handwriting, and even spray paint have enabled producers and shippers to keep track of the identity and whereabouts of food throughout its journey to our plates.
The information on packaging for the food industry—large lettering and scannable text or bar codes—is functional. By making food invisible, canning led consumers to request labels and grading systems. Unable to see the contents inside the package, buyers want information. Trust and technology come together in the supply chain when it comes to food. When Henry J. Heinz introduced packed and processed horseradish in clear bottles in 1869, he offered transparency to counter the typical amber bottles that were often used to hide cheaper, unadvertised additives.
The Uniform Product Code (UPC) code, part of the barcode, is just one example of the information you can find on a label. During the 1970s, grocery stores got together to develop a coding system for identifying items as they passed through the checkout stations in their stores. The group developed the UPC label you find on food packaging and even on individual pieces of fruit.
But as anyone who’s struggled to peel a tiny sticker off an apple will attest, labels aren’t without their faults. Aside from the annoyance factor, one of the problems with stickers is the water loss that occurs when they pull off the outer skin of the fruit, and the potential contamination if pathogens carried on the label come into contact with the produce.
If the idea of stickers on your food repulses you, then you might be happier with fruit tattoos or laser etching right on the fruit itself. The first companies to offer such labeling products, such as Laserfoods in Spain, appeared in 2009. The USDA experimented with marking fruit and vegetables, and scientists at the Agricultural Research Center and the University of Florida came up with a way to use laser etching to place product codes on produce.9 Laser etching requires a carbon dioxide laser printer and can imprint a product with the brand name and a tracking number—a tattoo, of sorts. The method self-cauterizes the etching so the produce doesn’t lose water or shelf life. The technology also eliminates the contamination risk and the tendency of stickers to, well, stick to other produce and create a glob of apples or clementines.
The Europeans have been leading the way in terms of adopting this technology, and during a European multistage trail race in 2009, I was offered a laser-etched apple displaying the race logo. But the United States is not far behind. The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires all produce to be labeled, so the pressure is on food producers to come up with a cost-effective way to get the codes on the fruit. The only sticky issue is that tattoos, by their very nature, are limited in the amount of information they can capture.
Those who prefer the sticky labels worry that the tattoos might penetrate the skin of the produce, introducing pathogens and causing the fruit or veggie to rot. Those who prefer tattoos like the low-cost aspect of the technology along with the fact that they wouldn’t need to inventory labels. In 2016, the USDA approved laser etching of produce, limited to citrus fruit.10
By the way, if you get tired of trying to pry those paper labels off your apples, you can eat them. The FDA and the European Union (EU) have published codes that outline what they define as acceptable standards for edible paper to make food labels.11 One company in the Netherlands, Primus Ouwel, makes edible labels from potatoes, called wafer paper. The company even produces edible paper money for children’s parties. Edible “wafers” have been around since the Renaissance, the company claims.
The future of food labeling and packaging will bring us more recyclable materials, repurposed containers, and lighter, smarter materials. Far from the Roman reliance on terra cotta amphorae, we are now considering ways to eat packages as well as labels. David Edwards, a Harvard biochemical engineer, self-described biocreator, and founder of Cambridge, Massachusetts, startup Wikifoods, Inc., began making edible packaging in 2014 with the idea that it would mimic natural packaging, similar to the skin that protects your apple or the cone that holds your ice cream scoop.12 Edwards thinks about packaging in artful terms, collaborating with artists, sculptors, and other creatives across disciplines to develop new food packaging that will eliminate food waste. Edwards calls these innovations “Wikipearls,” and his website uses phrases like “couture craftsmanship” to describe how his team developed coatings and skins that are edible and artful, yet functional. The skins protect food from contamination and provide portion control. One the other hand, once you touch a Wikipearl, you’ve contaminated it just like you would a banana peel or ice cream cone.
Edwards isn’t alone. Apeel’s Edipeel is one of several innovative new “skins” that keep moisture in and air out.13 Other companies are focused on developing other substances that are both safe to eat and effective barriers against the elements that cause spoilage. Cellulose and chitin (made from insects) are among the edible materials innovators like Wikifoods and Apeel are using to coat fruit and vegetables.14
The big food companies have the power to shift the narrative about how we move food through the supply chain, and some of them are beginning to change their food packaging, especially those in the fast food industry. In early 2018, McDonald’s announced that it would eliminate Styrofoam by the end of that year, and by 2025 they expect to use only recyclable and renewable packaging materials. Other labeling and packaging innovations include smart labels, see-though materials, and even facial recognition for fruit and vegetables—all moves responding to the consumers’ demand for transparency that can rebuild trust.
Processing, packing, and labeling food take time and resources even after all those ingredients leave the producer. Packaged food still requires storage somewhere, if only for a few hours. We store food while supply and demand struggle to keep up with each other, to compensate for seasonal and market price fluctuations, and to help ripen our food. Warehouse are integrated into distribution centers, and they sit alongside wharves, railways, and air cargo yards. In some cases, storage problems have had catastrophic effects. And while storing food should be pretty straightforward, the problems have been building up.
In the darkness of winter in 1919, two firemen playing cards in the firehouse near Commercial Street on Boston’s waterfront felt the explosion.15 An unctuous wave of sticky molasses burst from a fifty-foot-tall cylinder in Boston’s North End, and the Great Molasses Flood began. The images in the newspapers were of inundation, waste, and too much of a good thing in the wrong place.16 The firemen never played their next round.
The reason for the disaster was the buildup of pressure and gasses from too much molasses fermenting in a cylinder that was too weak to maintain its integrity as the molasses awaited transport to distilling facilities in Cambridge, across the Charles River.17 There, it would have been converted into industrial alcohol for military use. The decaying steel tanks were fifty feet tall and ninety feet in diameter, and they were located between a poultry slaughterhouse and the dock where the molasses ships arrived from far away producers in Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Fluctuating temperatures during a January thaw had left the molasses thick and viscous. The sweet syrup engulfed horses and workers nearby, and twenty-one people died. A nearby building collapsed, killing city employees; the firehouse fell to the ground, killing the two card players and another fireman. Red Cross workers streamed into the area to supply aid, including coffee and doughnuts.
The Purity Distilling Company, owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, felt the repercussions of the devastation for years afterward. As a result, Boston instituted some of the first urban building certification programs in the United States, and businesses in general came under greater scrutiny for lapses in worker safety.
Cylinders, silos, caves, warehouses, pounds, freezers, and pits hold our food until we are ready. These are silent repositories, patient structures awaiting the deposit and withdrawal of caloric energy as it moves through the transportation networks joining our cities. Storage facilities and those that work in them are just as invisible as the rest of our food supply chain, to be observed only obliquely, and only if we pay attention. (A molasses flood wouldn’t be their preferred method for attracting attention.) We conceal them through our own acceptance that they are unexceptional, necessary accessories to our industrialized landscapes—like telephone poles, dumpsters, or parking meters.
As food supplies increase, so does the need for storage capacity. So when farmers find themselves the conflicted beneficiaries of a record grain crop, they rush to secure space. When Argentinian soybean production increased from more than 20 million tons in 2000 to more than 53 million tons in 2014, farmers lacked adequate storage facilities.18 As a result, grain traders had to sell in spot markets, settling transactions in one day rather than benefiting from the futures markets. Storage space is one of those resources that needs rethinking as we move toward more adaptive, distributed food supply chain networks.
Far advanced from early Roman storage facilities, warehouses today operate almost as logistics centers, often providing not only storage but also tracking, tracing, and transportation management. They are filled with pallets, forklifts, and pallet racks. The distribution of food requires a robust warehousing system, and warehouses can hold food in any form along the supply chain, in ambient or cold-chain temperatures and for short- or long-term storage. Most warehouses are outside urban centers because they need lots of inexpensive land and ample access to highways and other transport networks. In many cases, food products hang out in warehouses, accumulating until transport systems (trucks, rail, ships, air) can fill up entire loads, which cost less than less-than-full-load shipment (more on that in chapter 4).
But warehousing space today is reaching an equilibrium of supply and demand. For the past few years, warehouses have been in short supply, driving up the cost and difficulty of storing food en route to consumers. The vacancy rate for US industrial space in 2016 was 6.2 percent. Finding available space near transportation and distribution hubs and producers is challenging. And the basic dynamics that influence the rate and location of warehouses for food are changing.
Food warehouses, like Walmart’s huge warehouse and distribution center in Arkansas, often have separate docking areas for incoming and outgoing transport. Some have networks of conveyor belts and sorting stations. If you ever want to see global commerce in action, go to a warehouse and watch the speed and volume of goods moving into, around, and out.
Warehouses are being built every day, but their uses may change in the future. The impact of online shopping, the shift to smaller inventories and just-in-time fulfillment, and the development of direct-to-customer commerce may or may not make large warehouses another artifact of the industrial revolution. They may become smaller and more distributed over the landscape. Warehouse designers are looking for ways to optimize space and minimize warehouse footprints. Prologis, a large logistics real estate company, recently began construction on the first multistory warehouse in the United States, located near Seattle.19
McLane Company, Inc., a large logistics company in the United States, has recently built a new warehouse operated using geothermal temperature control and cooling installation and designed as a vertical warehouse. Located in Republic, Missouri, this mega warehouse uses robots and AI to move goods, including lots of food, from bulk shipments to individualized truck shipments. The company has forty distribution centers in the United States, and their vertical warehouses, rising in urban areas similar to urban farming, respond to the need to be closer to pricey urban areas in order to shorten the Last Mile and the time it takes to respond to online orders.
Urban logistics and warehouses are about to be thought of in a different context alongside urban food production and increasing urban populations. Shipments from these warehouses will be smaller and more frequent, requiring distribution centers to increase their routes into urban areas. More “hubs and spokes,” as logistics managers call them. This is how we will have larger distribution centers in some areas, connected to a greater number of small distribution centers that cluster around our mega cities. Reflecting computing’s move from big central processing units (CPUs) of the 1960s to more and smaller computers clustered around those big CPUs, this new topology for food distribution will remake our landscapes in the next decade. There’s no telling how small these microwarehouses will end up being. You may have one in your county or even in your neighborhood.
What’s more, robots are replacing humans in warehouses, following GPS routes within buildings to deliver ketchup up and down the pallet racks. The increasing number of SKUs in the food industry, along with the need for fast delivery, incentivizes warehouse operators to invest in automation and robots. And sensors and scanners that travel with the pallets and products can now tell a warehouse manager exactly where that bottle of Heinz is at any time. Automation is a tool for maximizing space, and space, after all, defines the utility of a warehouse.
Other changes in the food supply chain will alter the way warehouses operate. VR and AR will assist humans in the location and movement of goods throughout a warehouse. Much of this technology will also apply to distribution centers, which include warehouses. HEB, the Texas-based grocery company, announced in 2018 its use of augmented and virtual reality technologies to train its warehouse personnel.
Maximizing warehouse space through online platforms similar to Airbnb will enable small- to medium-sized food products to find space in warehouses. Some startups, such as Flexe, Stowga, and Sparefoot, are already providing this service, offering the ability for small shipments to find warehouse space closer to customers and enabling faster delivery times for the Last Mile. Finding food-grade space, however, will complicate things since cold-chain requirements are more stringent.
Then there’s Amazon, of course, ever ahead of the pack when it comes to supply chain, filing a patent for underwater storage facilities.20 (This might be the perfect solution for cold-chain storage.) Other companies are using AI to merge data on consumer demand to inform procurement managers about increases or decreases they are seeing in their stores so signals can be sent to farmers that cause them to either slow down or speed up their production plans. This will send fewer raw ingredients down the supply chain that may either sit too long in warehouses or be wasted at the retail end.
Despite the efforts of food companies to produce food that meets consumer needs—if not their idealistic demands for simplicity—there is a lot that can go wrong in this section of the food supply chain. Faulty machinery leads to lost produce, negligent food inspections lead to contaminated ice cream, and a deficit of facilities (and miscommunication between supply and demand) leaves ingredients lingering in overstuffed warehouses far longer than is ideal or safe. Packaging breaks open, and contents spoil. So what does it look like when these middle links fall apart?
When all attempts to make food digestible, flavorful, healthy, and longer lasting fail, the environment takes a hit and food leaks out of the food supply network. The FAO reminds us that about 30 percent of food produced is wasted, not to mention lost even before it arrives in our kitchens. Wealthier countries waste more than underdeveloped countries that value every gram of food that comes to the plate. While it’s a messy statistic (there just aren’t that many carefully researched metrics for food waste), this is ample evidence that we should do a better job distributing all the food we produce. And the concept of food-related waste is complex: food loss occurs all along the supply chain, and food waste results after we purchase and prepare food. Food waste is both organic and inorganic. We fill our garbage cans with food and its packaging.
Organic material can break down or be used for biofuel, and most bulk containers are either recycled or reused within the supply chain. Food packaging is filling our landscape, and we’re coming to a point when we just can’t export it anymore. For years, container ships have been lugging waste—including paper and plastic from our food products—to China, where it has entered large landfills. But as of 2017, China has banned several big categories of waste, turning away shiploads of food packaging waste. Shippers are scrambling to find countries, such as Thailand, that would be willing to take the waste previously loaded on ships bound for China. As ships wander the global waterways looking for dumping sites, it would benefit us to find a way to limit the amount of food packaging in the first place.
Though packaging waste is certainly a problem, so is food waste caused by post-harvest losses of perishables. And packaging, in many ways, helps prevent that. Temperature control is critical to reducing waste by maintaining freshness, and packaging plays a critical role in that endeavor. Eight percent of all the energy consumed within the food industry goes to refrigeration, but precooling packaging materials so food can be chilled immediately before and after harvesting can save energy. Packing and packing material that allows the required airflow is important. Plastic clamshells, ventilated fiberboard, and mass-transfer-limiting pallet boards play a role in keeping food cool.21 And more and more of these materials are becoming recyclable and biodegradable.
When food expires on the shelf or gets contaminated through the fault of processing or packaging, it goes into the waste bin. Even the food packages themselves end up in the waste stream. Aside from the energy and resources it takes to produce our food, this failure in the middle part of the supply chain has created a crisis in our food system that has enormous consequences for our environment and food supply. Discovered in the late 1980s, the Pacific trash vortex hovers in the North Pacific Ocean, a floating accumulation of industrial waste, especially plastic bags, many of which we used to carry bananas home from the grocery store.
The subject of waste in the food supply chain is one of the main considerations for a redesign of the food delivery chain. We have evidence that we know how to grow enough food, but not that we know how to keep it all in the supply chain as it travels to our plates. This wouldn’t be so bad except that one key difference between a food supply chain and other supply chains is the return end. For light bulbs, let’s say, if one arrives broken or unusable, you can arrange a return with the supplier and send the item back up the chain. But since most food items are perishable, food never returns to the farmer; it becomes waste. Creating a lean supply chain for food is challenging since the opportunity to lessen waste is impeded by the fact that food ingredients can’t last long enough for a return trip. You can send your plate back to the kitchen when dining in a restaurant, but you can’t send back your avocados from your kitchen at home.
Intrigued by all the media campaigns to get us to waste less food, I decided to photograph all my own food waste for one week, hoping that the evidence for just one person could provide a real-world insight. Day after day, I positioned my camera over avocado skins, fat trimmings, and orange peels. At some moment, I felt a bit embarrassed by my photo and removed a few items for later consumption. But mostly, the big lesson was at the end of the week when food began to spoil because portions sold in grocery stores were too big for a single person’s weekly needs. Until we can get personalized, timely portions to our plate, we will continue to generate our own trails of leftovers. The idea of eliminating all food waste is likely impractical. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
And yet, there’s a piece of the food waste puzzle that we don’t talk about as much, and that’s food loss. Food loss occurs somewhere along the supply chain before the food arrives at the grocery store and includes loss caused by inclement weather, pests, spillage from malfunctioning machinery, or loss during transport. It can also occur from degradation of food by mishandling, poor packaging, cold-chain failures, and spillage in warehouses. Leaky sacks of grain, a hail storm, or poorly maintained hoses in a dairy operation all contribute to the invisible trail of food losses that occur long before we exercise our right to big portions.
So how much of our wasted food supply comes from loss, and how much from waste? Surprisingly, the data suggests that the overwhelming majority of wastage is caused by supply chain deficiencies. The FAO states that in underdeveloped countries most of the waste occurs during post-harvest—when substandard produce is left in the field or inadequate technology prohibits optimum harvesting—or processing. Produce such as fruits and vegetables makes up the highest percentage of food waste.
The food left in the field is often a result of harvesting equipment that didn’t capture the entire potato or carrot. Sometimes, it’s left behind because it doesn’t conform to grading standards, such as a carrot with multiple roots. The item is edible, just a little ugly. Or it doesn’t meet the requirements for standardized processing equipment or package specifications.
The Bible mentions the need to leave some of the harvest on the field for spiritual reasons, but the activity of picking up the bits left behind, called gleaning, is coming back from its Biblical roots as a form of food recovery—the effort to capture edible food before it reaches the landfill.
Now you can find information about gleaning from nonprofit organizations such as the Gleaning Network in the UK and big government institutions like the USDA. The Gleaning Network invites individuals to volunteer as gleaners. The USDA offers a toolkit for gleaners who want to locate farmers with fields that offer gleaning opportunities.22 Some of the food gathered goes to food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. Subscription food delivery services such as Imperfect Produce in California pick up “imperfect” or ugly produce from farms for delivery to customers.23 The idea of using ugly produce is gaining acceptance as public awareness of the food waste problem increases. Food companies that espouse sustainable practices will seek out opportunities to reduce waste throughout their operations. We, on the other hand, will continue to struggle to balance convenience with the shame incurred with every toss into the garbage can of uneaten food at the end of the week.
When it comes to sustainability, our food innovators are looking for ways to get food waste out of the garbage cans. One is by turning it into energy. Kroger announced its waste-to-energy system in 2013 for its Ralph’s distribution center. Stop and Shop New England, a Massachusetts-based grocery, launched its anaerobic digestion facility in mid-2016. Similar to other upcycling grocery stores, Stop and Shop takes waste from more than 200 of its stores and puts it inside a big biodigester, where microorganisms break down the waste to convert carbon into biogas. This all happens at one of the company’s distribution centers, where the biogas-generated electricity covers about 40 percent of the center’s electricity needs. Even packaged organic material breaks down with this combination of liquefaction and digestion technology.24
Garbage to Garden, a startup in Portland, Maine, is an example of how cities can create a closed loop system for recycling compostable waste. Rather than just composting, consumers in Portland and a few cities in Massachusetts store their organic waste in specialized containers that the startup picks up and processes, either for farmers to use as compost or for biodigesters to use for energy production. This model, which is now beginning to take root in other cities, may be a way to integrate the food supply chain into urban infrastructures. Some cities are now mandated through local regulations to compost all food waste. In France, a law passed in 2016 prohibits grocery stores from disposing of edible food. These regulations are spawning new composting and charitable food distribution systems.
For a big vision, see a group of architects operating out of the Netherlands and the United States, who want to design villages, towns, and cities that are their own worlds—living, eating, and using waste to fuel their communities. RenGen Villages revealed its vision in 2013, to much admiration and encouragement.25 The idea is to connect all parts of the city in an Internet of Things fashion, using savings that would reduce mortgages for those who purchase homes in these “resilient” cities. The vision is bold, aggressive, and waiting to move from idea to reality.
Imagine that you no longer have trashcans at the end of your driveway. Instead, you pour your waste into your personal bioreactor that generates power to be stored for timely usages. These “smart” homes seem like a good next step in the move away from waste that sits on top of urban designs, degrading and hiding the designer’s original aesthetic. James Erlich, the CEO of RenGen, is a senior technologist at Stanford University. He’s keen to bring his years of advocacy for organic, self-reliant living to the development of his villages.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2018, Whirlpool introduced a kitchen appliance that transforms our organic waste directly into compost. Looking much like a trash compactor, this appliance provides us with a steady stream of fertilizer without traipsing a bucket to an outdoor composter that needs regular care and feeding. But will we relinquish yet more kitchen counter real estate to this app-supported device? It would be nice to see this activity directly integrated into kitchen designs at the outset.
Even the fiber scientists have joined the waste brigade, testing tensile strength, absorption, and durability of fibers fabricated out of food. Young-A Lee explores how to make fibers from food while she’s not teaching at Iowa State.26 The EPA joined her project for converting a byproduct of kombucha production into textile fiber. A company in the UK, Ananas Anam, uses pineapple fiber waste to make fibers for clothing.27 Coconut fibers, seafood, and insect-derived chitin become leather and other fiber.28 All this upcycling is a reverse supply chain of sorts, moving waste back up the chain and then back down again in a new form.
As with any of these new supply chain innovations, the cost-benefit measurements aren’t really known. Subsidies and abstract values such as sustainability muddy the little data that exists for these new approaches to handling food waste. We might argue that putting more effort toward not having waste in the first place would be more effective than repurposing the energy contained in food. Better packaging and personal-sized portioning might allow a company to receive more revenues up front, rather than investing in the capital and labor required to process waste into something else. We could be right. There’s lots more room for research.