Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Amazon’s Alexa can now field questions about storing and salvaging food before it lands in the dumpster or compost bin.
A few days after a sizable grocery haul, you might find yourself staring into the fridge and losing your bearings. Following a recipe’s orders often involves a game of tetris with the contents of the shelves and crisper drawers: By the end of the week, you’ll have rotated so many items that the inventory is hazy. There are bunches of vegetables you only vaguely remember purchasing, or ones that seem to hide until they’re sorry sights, like puckering, graying avocadoes marooned behind cartons of milk.
To reverse course on trashing food—a habit that sends tens of millions of tons of otherwise-edible stuff into the waste stream each year—the Natural Resources Defense Council, in partnership with the Ad Council, recently launched a skill for Amazon’s Alexa (the omnipotent voice that lives in the smart-home Echo device). This new installment of the NRDC’s Save the Food Campaign empowers to preemptively stave off scraps before they pile up.
Food is squandered all across the supply chain—from farms to restaurants, store shelves, and customers’ cabinets—and the culprits range from strict aesthetic conventions to inscrutable and highly variable conventions for date labels. But consumers are responsible for the heftiest share of the trashed food—43 percent of the total. Any successful intervention needs shoppers’ buy-in as quickly and easily as possible, says JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate in the food and agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Of the raft of food-waste apps already on the market, many hop on the tail end of a food’s life, by redirecting surplus food from restaurant kitchens or funneling leftovers to food banks or pantries. The conceit of the smart-home intervention, Berkenkamp says, is meeting folks in the kitchen, at the point where they’re unloading groceries or wondering what to do with something that’s on its last legs. “The idea is to make it easy and fun for people to get the information they need to manage their food inventory and store foods correctly” for maximized shelf life, Berkenkamp says.
Users can ask how to store asparagus, where to place a carton of milk, or whether it’s safe to eat freezer-burned meat. (In a vase, like flowers; far away from the door, where it’s likely to be blasted with room-temperature air; yes, just cut around the icy portion.) They can also inquire about sensory aspects, such as a wilting stalk of celery or a browning avocado. Alexa might ask for a more granular description of the avocado’s hue and tenderness before issuing a recommendation.
Consumers are already enlisting voice-controlled devices to do all sorts of things around the house. In May, GeekWire reported that Echo sales have topped 10 million since 2014. Data suggests that customers consider the Alexa-powered devices to be information hubs. Last winter, a survey by the Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found that the majority of users tapped Alexa to answer queries, instead of to cue up music or other entertainment.
The Alexa skill also targets a gap in current policies for reducing food waste. While city, state, and federal food-waste reduction plans have increased markedly since 2000, a new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future found that many of these blueprints hinge on composting and other strategies for diverting waste, rather than tactics that reduce waste in the first place. With its emphasis on planning ahead and repurposing castoffs, that’s the perspective that the Alexa skill is striving for.
To program answers to the questions, developers drew from sources including the trove of research that the NRDC senior scientist Dana Gunders folded into her Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, a decidedly lower-tech guide to curbing waste at home. Though Alexa’s answers are fairly comprehensive, there are a few oversights: The software doesn’t recognize all foods, so when one of my colleagues road-tested it, Alexa responded to an inquiry about “sundried tomatoes” with an answer that referred to fresh ones. But the skill is responsive, and able to field narrow and broad questions about a buffet of foods and storage strategies.
More than 54 percent of Americans now perceive food waste to be a significant problem in the U.S., according to a survey conducted by the Ad Council. To make a long-term dent in the problem, though, that awareness would need to be converted into behavioral change. Berkenkamp thinks it’s possible. “The volume of food that is wasted at the consumer level is very, very large,” she says. “But this is an issue we can crack.”