On May 21, France passed legislation, the Loi Macron, making it illegal for supermarkets to throw out food; they have to direct it to food banks, animal feed, or composting. On July 9, the European Parliament approved a recommendation to do the same for the whole EU.
New Yorker Carlos de Santiago already has a plan to prevent food from going to waste. It doesn’t require a law, and it could even save you money. De Santiago and four colleagues are developing an online service, called BuyMeBy, which allows stores to publish discounts on items that are approaching their expiration date.
The closer to the date, the lower the price; but at least the store makes some money, rather than throwing the food out after it expires. (BuyMeBy is working on a formula for the rates of discount, but wasn’t ready to share details yet.) Shoppers could check for deals nearby on a mobile app or look up marked-down groceries online and book delivery from the store or a service like Delivery.com.
BuyMeBy re-envisions the discount rack where older, but still sellable, items land. “If store management is on top of their game, they can put a [discount] section together,” says de Santiago. “But it’s all mixed up with toys and all these other things. It’s messy.”
BuyMeBy would automate the process and take it online. “What we’re allowing grocery stores to do is reach outside their doors and pull customers in with these sales sections that historically were only accessible to foot traffic,” de Santiago says. If products still don’t sell by the expiration date, BuyMeBy could send out automated alerts to food banks, which can accept items that are past the printed expiration date. “We’re helping get food to the underserved,” de Santiago says, “either if you’re on a really low budget or you’re homeless…and that reduces waste by tons.”
In September 2014, BuyMeBy took first place in Geeklist’s Hack4Good NYC competition and runner-up in the international competition for tech projects designed to fight climate change. Now its creators have to implement the idea. They are currently working with a natural foods store in Greenwich Village to figure out all the logistics of how the service could be implemented. The next step will be to launch a pilot program with a few New York City stores.
The automation part is the challenge. Most inventory-management software in supermarkets doesn’t track expiration dates, and many stores use very old applications. Newer companies tend to offer better analytics and inventory tools. New York City-based ShopKeep, which makes iPad software that is popular in the kinds of smaller stores found in the city, offers extensive analytics, but it doesn’t currently track expiration dates well. However, ECount, a company based in Southern California, does offer the kind of track-date tracking that BuyMeBy would need, says de Santiago.
There are work-arounds. Some food suppliers include the expiration date on invoices, and de Santiago hopes he can persuade others to add it. It’s also possible to estimate the date based on when the food arrived. “We know this kind of product has this shelf life,” de Santiago says. “We can deduce what the expiration date will be.” There are plenty of tables providing those estimates, such as one by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For de Santiago, BuyMeBy is a way of honoring his roots. He grew up on a farm in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua before moving to Las Vegas to study fashion design. (“I had a completely non-linear career path,” he told me.) In fact, none of the BuyMeBuy team was born in the U.S., and they bring a more conservative view of avoiding waste than is common in this country, de Santiago says.
“When I see people throw away food, it’s heartbreaking,” he adds. “Because I don’t think they realize how much work, how much time, how much energy, how much love goes into raising that which we consume.”