To start making global progress in combating climate change and rehabilitating the planet, we must answer a simple question: How can we prevent waste? Less waste can save time, money, energy, and maybe even our planet–and there’s no better place to start than food.
In 2011, we built Nest Learning Thermostat. It taught us that great technology can change the way we live–and that introducing or improving small habits can add up to something big.
We’re not headed for a future of resource abundance. That’s why we need to tackle the problem of waste, particularly food waste, with urgency.
Nobody likes waste, and nobody wants to create it–but these days, it’s hard to avoid producing. That’s especially true when it comes to food.
Some of us compost uneaten food. However, composting requires open space and it can be hard work. We battle with militant fruit flies, put up with funky smells, and run to the door with dripping bags. And that’s if we’re lucky. In most places, municipal composting isn’t even available.
So we end up doing the best we can. Or we don’t know what to do, so we just throw food in the trash and hope everything turns out okay. Only it doesn’t.
In the U.S., wasted food is the single largest inhabitant of landfills. And most of that food comes from our kitchens. We waste over a third of the food we grow. That’s like buying five bags of groceries and leaving two of them in the parking lot.
Food in landfills also releases methane–one of the most potent greenhouse gasses that accelerate climate change. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world after China and the U.S.
Food waste is literally cooking our planet. It shouldn’t be this way.
Why it hits home for us
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all stuck at home staring at–and smelling–our own trash. We became more aware of all the waste we were generating every day, and just how much of it was food.
If you look at the changes to the energy industry over the last 50 years, a mega trend has been the shift from centralized infrastructure like power plants to decentralized infrastructure. Within our lifetimes, solar energy has transitioned from an inaccessible, large-scale, and expensive offering to affordable panels easily placed on the roof of your house that can power everything within it.
We think a similar wave of change is coming to how we manage resources in our homes we have historically considered waste, like the food we can’t eat.
Food doesn’t become trash just because you put your plate in the sink. What if returning food to the farm was as easy as sending it to the landfill? What if a chicken could eat it? And what if this meant we could get rid of the sludge at the bottom of our trash bins once and for all?
The success of this new approach requires a fundamental change in how we view waste at an individual level, and at a system level. That banana peel is still food, just not for humans.
Creating tighter, more efficient resource loops that keep nutrients from banana peels in the food system by feeding animals can help prevent food waste and make agriculture more efficient and sustainable. We need to start treating the banana peel as food–and stop turning it into trash by mixing it with other things. Food isn’t trash.
Very thoughtful people are trying to address and solve aspects of this problem in different ways. There are new regulations like California’s statewide reduction effort to keep organic material out of landfill (SB1383). There are organizations, like ReFED working to understand, quantify, and advocate for change. Additionally, there are local food security efforts and notable innovations from companies like Apeel, who are working to keep produce fresh for longer with plant-based approaches.
At Mill, we’ve built an entirely new system to address the overarching problem. We take the food you can’t eat at home, conserve the nutrients, and send it back to farms to feed chickens–saving the planet while saving you trips to the trash cans.
While approaches like these will help with the food waste problem, changing the system will take the efforts of many others. That’s why from the beginning, we’ve worked with everyone from government officials and regulators, to industry leaders and NGOs, to farmers and leaders in agriculture. Everyone agrees we need waste prevention innovation.
Cooking up a brighter future
When it comes to preventing waste, fighting climate change, or outwitting fruit flies, there is no silver bullet. These are big, tough problems–and if they were easy to solve, someone would have done it already.
But we believe we can make the system more efficient. We can prevent waste, help heal our planet, de-stink our kitchens, and build a sustainable business along the way. That optimism is what drives us, and it’s why we’re in this for the long haul.
This is just the beginning. If we can figure out wasted food, what about the other stuff? We spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year throwing away things that still have value. What if we could prevent other things from becoming waste in the first place? What if we could outsmart waste?
Matt Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Mill Industries Inc., a waste prevention startup based in San Bruno, California. He was a co-founder of Nest and has been at the forefront of new technologies that help people take small, smart steps at home that can impact our planet.
Harry Tannenbaum is the co-founder and president of Mill Industries Inc. He was an early leader at Nest, working with Matt and the team to build the Nest Learning Thermostat, and is thrilled to not have to take out the trash nearly as frequently as he used to.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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