Companies in Japan are increasing their use of technology to reduce food waste and cut costs during the coronavirus health crisis.
They are using artificial intelligence, or AI, to help those efforts. The businesses are also looking to increase their sustainability efforts.
How big is Japan’s food waste problem?
Government information from Japan shows that it throws away more than 6 million tons of food waste each year.
The cost to handle this food waste is estimated at $19 billion. This means Japan wastes more food for each of its citizens than any other Asian country.
For this reason, the Japanese government has enacted a new law. Its goal is to cut the costs of food waste by 50 percent from levels in 2000. The government wants to reach this goal by 2030 and it is urging companies to find ways to solve the problem.
Convenience store operator Lawson is now using AI from the U.S. company DataRobot. DataRobot uses technology to find ways to make supply meet demand.
In places where this program has started, Lawson aims to reduce having too much of a product by 30 percent. The company has similar plans to the Japanese government. It wants to cut its food waste by 50 percent from 2018 levels by the year 2030. The second biggest cost for Lawson’s store owners is disposal of food waste. Its highest cost is labor.
Drink maker Suntory Beverage & Food is experimenting with an AI product from another Japanese company, Fujitsu. Suntory wants to know if products such as bottles of tea and water have been damaged in shipping.
Until now, that has been done by human labor and takes a long time. With new AI technology, Suntory hopes to learn more about how its products get damaged while being sent to stores and how many will need to be returned for replacement.
Suntory aims to reduce the return of goods by 30 to 50 percent and cut the cost of food waste. The goal of these efforts is to develop a system that can be shared with other food makers and the companies that transport their products.
Sustainable development goals
Japan’s shoppers are known for being very fussy. But even they are showing signs of agreeing. This is especially true as the coronavirus health crisis hurts people’s incomes.
In 2014, Tatsuya Sekito launched Kuradashi, an internet-based business that sells surplus food at a discount. He started the company while working for a Japanese company that did business in China. There he saw huge amounts of waste from food producers.
With about 800 companies, the online network is doing very well. The reason is partly because of an increase in demand for low-priced foods. Shoppers are increasingly concerned about prices during the COVID-19 crisis.
Sekito told Reuters, “Sales grew 2.5 times last year from a year before, while the amount of food waste has doubled since the coronavirus cut off [the] food supply chain.”
The companies get shoppers by offering low prices and a chance to donate to worthwhile causes and social issues. That is not bad for business either. Membership numbers jumped to 180,000 in 2021 from 80,000 in 2019.
Other businesses have joined forces with food companies in developing new technologies to cut food waste. NEC Corporation is using AI that estimates demand based on several conditions, such as the weather, the time of year, and people’s buying behavior.
NEC has used AI with some major retailers and food makers. It has helped them reduce costs by 15 to 75 percent. But a top official at NEC told Reuters that reducing food waste is not the company’s final goal.
Ryoichi Morita said he hopes reducing waste will help solve other business problems. These, Morita said, include reducing costs, increasing supply-and-demand efficiency, and fixing labor shortages.
I’m Anna Matteo.
Tetsushi Kajimoto reported this story from Tokyo for Reuters news agency. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
artificial intelligence (AI) –n. an area of computer science that deals with giving machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence
sustainability –n. involving methods that permit the use of resources without completely using them up or destroying them
convenience store –n. a small store that is open many hours of the day and has many different products for sale
disposal –n. the act of throwing something away
fussy –adj. hard to please; very careful about choosing something
discount –n. an amount by which the price of something is reduced to increase its chances of being sold
retailer –n. a person or business that sells directly to people for their own personal use
efficiency –n. the ability to produce something without wasting materials, time or energy