On the Money

Solving the problem of wasted food, with a simple app

Waste not, want not

Even more than plastic and paper, food waste is filing up trash cans in the United States and becoming a problem across the world.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, discarded food worth nearly $165 billion annually is rotting in municipal landfills. This costs cities and businesses billions more in waste management expense. Now, however, there's an app for that.

"A lot of technology is developed to address trivial problems such as photo sharing, chatting or dating," said Tony Vu, the CEO of MintScraps, in an interview. The company run by Vu has pioneered a web-based application to help businesses measure and reduce waste.

The subscription service can be downloaded from the MintScraps site. Based on user input, the program provides a weekly report about recycling, composting and trashing. Currently MintScraps is being used in five of the eateries run by restaurateur and celebrity chef Mario Batali in New York City. Those restaurants are part of the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group (B&BHG).

"A restaurant can input the data into the web app and the program is designed to calculate the cost of waste and provide savings recommendations," he said.

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A bulldozer pushes trash into piles at the Miramar Landfill in San Diego, California.
Sam Hodgson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The B&BHG restaurants contribute to New York City's estimated one million tons of food waste annually, and part of what the United Nations says is a whopping 1.3 trillion tons of wasted edibles globally. By itself, New York City's food waste would be enough to fill 100 subway cars per day, and costs some $300 million, according to the city.

Vu grew up in California surrounded by the outdoors. He credits his appreciation for the environment along with his background in technology, sustainability and international business as the inspiration for MintScraps. Now, restaurants are starting to catch on.

"Initially we used MintScraps in our New York restaurants as a six-month trial pilot program," said Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability at B&BHG. an interview. "Now we pay the subscription fee because we want to support work like this."

Meltz is a trained chef who left the kitchen in 2007 to begin a culinary career in restaurant operations. Currently she is responsible for several green initiatives including B&BHG's corporate no-bottled-water policy.

"Normally you throw your trash out and put it out on the sidewalk but now we are taking stock in that," said Meltz. "People think it's more expensive to reduce food waste, they perceive it as more work but trash costs more to landfill than it does to compost."

Meltz says waste reduction is most effective with compost efforts, adding that B&BHG is in talks to expand MintScraps in Los Angeles. Other cities with similar environmental issues and green initiatives are also beginning to haul their trash with food waste requirements.

The city of Seattle changed their laws to no longer allow food or compostable paper, including pizza boxes, paper napkins and paper towels, to be placed in the garbage. The food waste requirements are part of the city's solid waste comprehensive plan.

Regardless of their location, Vu says the first thing business can do to help cut waste is to look into their trash bags to see if food scraps can go to compost bin. He believes even the smallest actions such as sorting can add to the bottom line.

"MintScraps gives you real data based on how much trash you're generating. The key is being able to see that information, it was a black hole before," Meltz said. "MintScraps is the black box."