Inventing sustainable solutions to food waste

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, between 30% and 40% of America’s food supply goes to waste. That waste corresponds to more than 130 billion pounds of food in landfills that could have helped feed families in need. Finding ways to reduce waste could also redirect the water, energy and labor used to produce food for other purposes that benefit society.

Seeking solutions to consumer food-waste issues was the inspiration for the most recent Devils Invent, a three-day design challenge, in which students from Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University, the University of Arizona and Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine converged to conceptualize innovative, sustainable health solutions.

The weekend-long challenge was a collaborative event hosted jointly by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, College of Health Solutions and Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and held at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix.

Participation ranged from new students in their first semester to graduate students working on doctoral degrees. Their solutions incorporated a variety of ideas to reduce food waste, improve community health and increase sustainability.

“This was our first in-person event in over a year, and the students’ excitement was palpable,” says Anthony Kuhn, Fulton Schools lecturer and director of Devils Invent. “I think the diversity in majors between all our winning teams’ members shows that the appetite to solve real problems is in full swing.” 

Devils Invent: Sustainable Health Solutions saw students battling for scholarship prize money donated by Kroger/Fry’s and WeCare Denali.

Waste watchers

The top prize of $5,000 went to the FORWAA team and its food scanner idea to help identify edible food before it is wasted.

“We started by identifying the many problems with food waste,” says Andrew Deros, a mechanical engineering senior in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the seven Fulton Schools, and a junior industrial design student in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “There are a lot, but we decided to focus on the home. We found that food was often wasted because it was forgotten. It also gets thrown out because people assume brown food is not nutritious when in reality it is.”

The team came up with several ideas but landed on designing an app to create reminders about expiring food and a food scanner to detect whether food has spoiled and should no longer be eaten.

“We wanted to create a digitalized way that customers can keep track of how long their fruits and vegetables are healthy and edible,” says Rishik Kolli, a computer science sophomore.

The team found they could potentially keep track of when food goes bad based on when certain color patterns start showing up, so they created a general prototype of an RGB scanner.

“We know that we can further develop our product through deep-learning algorithms that get better and better by comparing more and more pictures of good and bad fruits,” Kolli says.

Deros says he plans to take the project ideas for further development at ASU’s Luminosity Lab, where he is currently working on other sustainability projects.

“The scanner is a natural fit for that environment, and I’m excited to see it developed,” Deros says.

The FORWAA team (from left: Oskar Kozieja, mechanical engineering sophomore; Aslit Castro, ASU nursing student; Fatima Aguayo Lopez, ASU community health student; Will Noll, biomedical engineering sophomore; Andrew Deros, mechanical engineering senior and industrial design junior; and Rishik Kolli, computer science sophomore) came up with the idea to create an app to send reminders about expiring food and a food scanner to detect whether food has spoiled and should no longer be eaten. Photo courtesy of Melissa Stine

Sustainable safekeeping

The $3,000 second-place award went to the Healthy DAAY team for their solution to provide care to aging people who remain in their homes. The team proposed utilizing Promotores, a program of community health workers, to address both food waste and climate change by repurposing food to reduce waste.

“Our project focused on the integration and mobilization of the Promotores into our communities because even though community health workers have a long history, these volunteers are new to many organizations,” says Yana Alexander, a third-year Doctor of Nurse Practice, or DNP, student in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

The Healthy DAAY team consisted of four third-year DNP students who have already spoken to their graduate faculty members about pursuing the project further beyond this event.

“While we are currently unable to undertake the next stage of development, the amount of research we conducted for this project may end up being a legacy project for other DNP students,” Alexander says.

One course in the DNP program requires students to attend events, webinars, service projects and other events throughout the semester. Students are encouraged to participate in events that help shape their DNP project or future practice.

“When presented with information on Devils Invent, it sounded like a fun and interesting way to gain hours toward the course,” says Amber Allen, one of the third-year DNP students on the team. “Once there, I really got excited about the prospect of combining the talents of different professions and personal experiences to brainstorm potentially sustainable health solutions. The energy was infectious, and it made me want to contribute something real and beneficial.”

Combustible and compostable

The $2,000 third-place prize went to the SmartComp team for their idea of creating an anaerobic compost system that takes food waste and uses it to create clean energy in the form of biogas. The idea conserves scraps to be used for composting and vertical farming.

“The system would be about the size of a dumpster so it could essentially be moved around and kept behind a restaurant,” says mechanical engineering graduate student Vishal Venkatesh. “This would not only decentralize the whole process, but the biogas produced can connect to the gas line of the restaurant kitchen and the digestate can be used in vertical farming or in nearby farms.”

A team named EAU, formed by three students from Grand Canyon University, won $1,000 in fourth place.

Engaging in innovation

Some students had participated in past Devils Invent challenges while others were being exposed to the multi-day, hackathon-style event for the first time.

“It is very different from anything I have ever done,” says first-year nursing student Kira Binstock, a member of the SmartComp team. “I was pretty nervous going into it, but I am glad I did it. I met some great people, I learned about the innovation process and I learned what amazing things people can come up with when they collaborate.”

Abdullah Madi, a first-year health sciences major in the College of Health Solutions, says, “It was such an experience. Combining the ingenuity of both engineering and health students to create world-level solutions in a limited time” made an impression on the first-time competitor and SmartComp team member.

While some students were not as familiar with sustainable health solutions, their prior experience participating in Devils Invent gave them confidence and a keen understanding of the innovation process.

“This is my second time participating in Devils Invent, and I have really enjoyed the competition process,” says mechanical engineering sophomore Oskar Kozieja, a member of the FORWAA team. “I have met a lot of new people with different majors and fascinating backgrounds. It helped me see all of the available opportunities that ASU has to offer if you take the initiative to get involved.”

The next Devils Invent will tackle the challenge of product shipping and handling. Teams will create solutions to the difficulties of moving cargo over land, through the air or across the seas. Devils Invent: Land, Air, and Sea takes place Friday, Nov. 19–Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Engineering Center eSpaces on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Erik Wirtanen
erikw@asu.edu