Japan taps into AI to rein in its massive food waste issue

By Sayujya S, Desk Reporter
  • Follow author on
Food Waste Image
Representational Image

Companies in Japan are ramping up the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies to reduce food waste and cut costs amid the pandemic.

The world’s No.3 economy spends about $19 billion a year to dispose off its food wastes, government data shows. With the highest food waste per capita in Asia, the Japanese government has enacted a new law to halve such costs from 2000 levels by 2030, pushing companies to find solutions.

Food waste in supermarkets

Convenience store chain Lawson has started using AI from US firm DataRobot, which estimates how much product on shelves, from rice balls to egg and tuna sandwiches, may go unsold or fall short of demand.

Lawson aims to bring down overstock by 30 percent in places where it has been rolled out, and wants to halve food waste at all of its stores in 2030 compared with 2018. Disposal of food waste is the biggest cost for Lawson’s franchise owners after labor costs.

Meanwhile drinks maker Suntory Beverage & Food is experimenting with another AI product to try to determine if goods such as bottles of oolong tea and mineral water have been damaged in shipping. Until now, that’s been a time-consuming human endeavor. With the new AI, Suntory hopes to gauge when a damaged box is just that, or when the contents themselves have been damaged and need to be returned.

Suntory aims to reduce the return of goods by 30-50 percent and cut the cost of food waste and develop a common standard system that can be shared by other food makers and shipping firms.

Citizens get on board

Japan shoppers, who are notorious for their fussiness, are showing signs of getting on board, especially as the coronavirus pandemic hits incomes.

Kuradashi, an eCommerce firm dealing in unsold foods at a discount was launched in 2014 after seeing massive amounts of waste from food processors. The online business is now thriving partly due to a jump in demand for low-priced unsold foods as consumers became more cost conscious amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Japanese shoppers tend to be picky but we attract customers by offering not just a sale but a chance to donate a portion of purchases to a charity, raising awareness about social issues,” Kuradashi’s founder Mr. Sekito said. Membership numbers have also jumped to 180,000 in 2021 from 80,000 in 2019.

Many others have also joined forces with food firms in Japan to develop new technological platforms and cut food waste as part of global efforts to meet sustainable development goals (SDGs).