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Can the Internet of Things (IoT) Reduce Food Waste?


Eliminating waste in the production and consumption of food is one of the key targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To solve this issue, we need to track people’s patterns of purchasing and consumption. In Japan, over 5.7 million tons of food are disposed of by businesses and homes each year, most often because they have passed their expiration dates. Tapping the power of IoT using electronic tags and smartphone apps, METI has launched experiments to make society more sustainable by changing our behavior just a little.

Visualizing the Freshness of Food

In an experiment designed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in 2021, produce wholesalers monitored the freshness of their fruits and vegetables from the moment they were shipped, through sales by an online grocer until just before they were consumed. To track this freshness journey, an electronic tag was attached to produce, which was then packed with a temperature and humidity logger* immediately ahead of shipment.
Information from electronic tags, temperature and humidity loggers reveals the true freshness of produce, making it possible to price by freshness. This enables consumers to weigh freshness and price when making purchases. Consequently, consumers can choose to buy produce that is fresh and will last longer if they don’t plan to consume it right away, or opt for produce that’s not so fresh but cheaper if they plan to eat it the same day. More purchases of products that are not the freshest increase overall sales in supermarkets, which will ultimately reduce food waste.

* Temperature and humidity logger: A device that tracks temperature and humidity over time, collecting data for analysis


The Contents of your Fridge at a Glance

The freshness data from the electronic tag and temperature and humidity loggers were also linked to a smartphone app at time of purchase. This app enabled consumers to check, at a glance, the freshness of the contents of their fridge. Some consumers found other benefits. Some said that because they knew what food was in their fridge and how fresh it was, they did not need to check their fridge before they went shopping. Because it was easier to figure out the ingredients they needed, they had extra time to think about what to cook.

Beyond "Mottainai"

The mindset of “mottainai,” or “what a waste,” is deeply rooted in Japan. Reduction of food waste is a global challenge. As consumers, we are all part of the problem, so we all must work towards a solution. An experiment launched in January 2022 addresses the question: How can people who have diverse values make efforts toward a solution, together with people with a "mottainai" mindset?
By loading information such as producers' specifications and recommended recipes onto electronic tags attached to produce, consumers can access digital versions of displays and flyers to get information that is usually hard to find instore. This enables consumers to be better informed when they shop. If a display says, "This year's vegetables, grown under the snow, are especially sweet and delicious!" consumers may be tempted to choose produce for reasons other than appearance.
By using more detailed pricing based on different expiration (or best-before) dates, consumers can make purchases according to their own consumption habits. Benefits also extend to retailers. By converting expiration information into data, they can skip the time-consuming work of attaching discount stickers while also streamlining inventory management.
Consumers benefit too. The smartphone app pushes information to consumers’ smartphones, offering coupons, providing balanced recipes and suggesting what ingredients to buy based on the contents of their refrigerator.

Reducing food waste while enjoying better food, saving money, and getting healthier—is a win-win-win. As our experiments suggest, it may not be too long before IoT makes this kind of society a reality.

Consumer Affairs, Distribution and Retail Industry Division

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Last updated:2022-05-13