AI in the kitchen: reducing food waste when even a little bit is way too much

By telling them exactly which uneaten foods are going in the bin, artificial intelligence is helping commercial kitchens save money and a precious resource.

It can happen in a lot of ways. Perhaps you leave a few unappetising food scraps on your plate, like a soggy chip or an overcooked bit of chicken. Or maybe you just can’t finish your meal, despite how much you enjoyed it. 

Whatever the reason, it all amounts to food waste. And despite mum’s coaxing to clean your plate as a child, food waste has become a critical problem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally one-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted (food that’s discarded before it’s sold is considered lost, and food thrown away after it’s bought or prepared counts as waste). All while 2.3 billion people, or almost 30% of the planet’s population, suffer from food insecurity. 

Reducing both of those numbers involves a complex mix of solutions, from making the food supply chain more efficient to imploring supermarket shoppers not to overbuy. And there’s one London-based company that believes technology armed with artificial intelligence also plays a role. 

Automating Food Waste with AI

Marc Zornes, the Co-Founder and CEO of Winnow Solutions, said visibility of food waste is the first step to cutting it. By showing businesses how much food they’re wasting, and how much money they’re losing as a result, they’ll be more motivated to act.

“There is little doubt that AI has significant potential to make a large impact in the hospitality industry, especially in an environment of tight margins,” he told me. “We harness AI to automate kitchen processes, provide real-time insights, and optimise operations for more sustainable outcomes.”

Progress where it counts

Though households, particularly those in developed countries, make up the biggest food wasters (11% according to the UN), Zornes and Co-Founder Kevin Duffy are focused on where they think they can do the most good. While wasting just 5% of the planet’s food, the huge scale of the food service industry makes it well suited for a solution that’s more than slogans. 

Think of a large hotel or casino serving hundreds of diners per day at multiple restaurants. Or consider a cruise ship buffet, open around the clock to hundreds or even thousands of passengers. Almost everything that’s uneaten is tossed, a waste of both a precious resource and money.

AI Reducing Food Waste - Winnow in Kitchen
A monitor, a camera and a scale are placed beneath the bin where food is discarded

“On average, commercial kitchens waste five to 15% of the food they buy,” Zornes said. “We work with them to reduce this number, increase profitability and cut food purchasing costs between 2% to 8% on average.”

Founded in 2013, the company now operates in 70 countries and counts IKEA, Hilton, Costa Cruises, Compass Group and Wynn Resorts among its customers. Its most advanced solution, called Winnow Vision, is made for the largest kitchens and consists of three parts: a monitor, a camera and a scale placed beneath the bin where food is discarded.

How Winnow Vision works

Before food is scooped off a plate, the camera takes a photo of what’s left. And once the food is chucked, the scale records how much it weighs.

Using the photo and the weight, Winnow Vision then uses AI to determine which kinds of food are going uneaten with the results showing on the monitor (Winnow says its software can distinguish between 600 foods). The software also calculates the cost of the food scrap and how much CO2 was emitted to produce it.

AI Reducing Food Waste - Winnow Report
A detailed report of what food is being wasted

Kitchen staff are saved the trouble of logging discarded food manually while still getting a detailed report of what’s being wasted. What kitchens do next, though, is up to them. Perhaps they could prepare smaller portion sizes or decide to cook or plate a menu item differently. And if something is always left untouched, it may need to be discontinued entirely. 

Zornes said Winnow has saved 36 million meals a year, across more than 2,000 kitchens. “Part of our mission is to build a movement of chefs and inspire others to see that food is too valuable to waste.”

Related reading: How can AI help fight climate change?

How AI is helping airlines reduce food waste

Airlines also are grappling with food waste, even as carriers cut back on onboard service in their rear cabins. A January 2023 report from the International Air Transport Association estimates that of the six million tonnes of waste produced by airlines each year, 20% is uneaten food. 

It amounts to $4 billion annually, a figure that is only expected to grow as air travel rebounds after the COVID pandemic. Though airline caterers prepare meals following strict food safety standards, health regulations in most countries mandate that discarded food from international flights must be incinerated upon arrival. 

“Meals produced to standards originally developed for NASA’s Apollo Project are deemed a biohazardous waste when discarded by a passenger, requiring specialist handling and treatment,” said Jon Godson, IATA’s assistant director of Sustainability, in the report.

Up in the air

Airbus, though, thinks it might have an answer. Last year the company announced its Food Scanner for tracking what airline passengers are eating inflight, and what they aren’t.

Airbus Food Scanner - AI Reducing Food Waste
Airbus Food Scanner

When attached atop a standard catering trolley, the Food Scanner uses a downward-facing camera and AI to both identify what’s on a meal tray when the cabin crew removes it for service and what’s still there when it’s returned. 

A barcode scanner also tracks any beverage cans or bottles that passengers request. Airlines can then analyse the data to find trends in food consumption and predict what will be popular on future flights. 

While eliminating waste is the Food Scanner’s most obvious goal, Airbus said there’s another benefit to reducing how much food and drink is loaded on a flight. In a video announcing the Food Scanner, Airbus Cabin and Cargo Architect Michael Bauer said a lighter aircraft will burn less fuel, both saving on fuel costs and cutting CO2 emissions.

Reducing how much food is loaded on a flight means the aircraft will burn less fuel.

Back on the ground, climate change is an issue Winnow says it’s also focused on. And as consumers demand that businesses be more sustainable, Zornes says awareness of food waste will only grow.

“The climate urgency is real, and we are running out of time… Part of our mission is to build a movement of chefs and inspire others to see that food is too valuable to waste.”

More coverage on sustainability

Kent German
Kent German

Kent German is an award-winning journalist who spent almost two decades at CNET as a senior editor. Kent is based in San Francisco but covers technology all around the world.