When talk turns to new technologies, trash cans may not be the first things that come to mind, but a new smart bin is actively embracing machine learning to target food waste.

The device is fitted with a camera, which captures an image each time the bin is used. With some initial help from kitchen staff, the trash can’s algorithm learns to identify different food types contained in each dump of waste, then weighs the volume of each type.

Image: Winnow Solutions

After establishing the value of the food scraps, the smart device calculates the cost of each discarded load, and adds it to the overall waste bill. Armed with a breakdown of the food types that are most often being thrown away, chefs can better plan their menus to save wasting food and money. The innovation claims to cut food waste by up to 8% each year, which could make a big difference to the bottom line of any food operation.

The high-tech device has been deployed in restaurant and hotel kitchens throughout the UK, including 23 Ikea stores, in a bid to reduce food waste.

Discarded food can incur a heavy cost for professional kitchens if not controlled. In England alone, the bill for restaurants was more than $937 million (£720 million) in 2016, but the problem is global in scale.

According to United Nations figures, roughly one third of all the world’s food produced for human consumption never makes it onto a plate. Approximately 1.3 billion tonnes is lost or wasted each year, with fruits, vegetables and root crops the main food types wasted.

The problem is greatest in the high-income regions of Europe and North America, followed by the industrialized nations of Asia.

Addressing the issue, the UN’s sustainable goals have set a target of halving per capita global food waste by 2030. Unless action is taken, total food waste could top 2 billion tonnes by this date, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group.

But the amount of food we throw away is directly linked to the way crops are grown and brought to market. The World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Food initiative points to the need to change the way food is produced, supplied and consumed, to build inclusive, sustainable, efficient and nutritious food systems.

Initiatives like the AI-enabled trash can allow the food industry to monitor waste and raise awareness of the issue among kitchen staff. And while such innovations can make a big difference to waste volumes when adopted on a global scale, alone they cannot resolve the problem.

While technology has an important role to play in achieving a more sustainable food supply, there is also a need to raise awareness of how much food is wasted: at the individual level, by households, the hospitality industry and nationally.