Beyond Buzz Words: The Surprising Ways Robotics Promote Sustainability and Help Landfills

“For people and planet” is usually not the first phrase that comes to mind when talking about robots. Nor, for that matter, are the words “sustainability” and “landfills.” Yet, robotics is contributing in surprising ways to make the food service industry more sustainable, particularly in the reduction of landfill.

Talking about sanitation isn’t sexy, even with the buzzwords of “sustainable production” and “responsible consumption” thrown in. Adding robots to the mix isn’t a surefire way to make the conversation more glamorous, either, but it is a way to apply a technology to produce real-world solutions—something that I’ve always been passionate about as an entrepreneur.

Reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills is a key consideration as we confront the challenges posed to our environment. Last year some 2.1 billion tons of waste went into landfills around the world; closer to home, the United States contributes 12% of the world’s solid waste production. In 2017, Americans daily sent 4.51 pounds of municipal solid waste per person to landfills, totaling 267.8 million tons, an increase of 5.7 million tons from 2015 levels. Within the Bay Area, disposable food and beverage containers account for 67% of street litter.

These rates are not maintainable, a problem the food industry knows all too well. Every week I meet with food service operators who are grappling with this issue. Owners, janitors, and caterers experience the daily problem of managing the disposal of increasing amounts of single use food wares. The struggle is real and there is a need for and openness to workable, real-world solutions that can balance cleanliness and client expectations with costs to make the industry a positive influence when it comes to preserving our environment.

That’s why countries across the planet adapted the Global Goals, a blueprint for how to create a stronger, more peaceful, and sustainable world by 2030. Businesses, including the food service industry, are leading the way to focus on greater sustainability practices. We’re innovating to work towards the Goals, and robotics are critical components to our twenty-first century solutions.

Food service operators and managers create experiences for diners, meal after meal. They tell stories through food and menus, décor and ambiance, as well as through the human staff who make customers the focal point of each occasion. These are the industry’s ingredients for success, but most diners typically do not consider how their dinner plate directly impacts our overflowing landfills—or the role robotics can play in the equation.

There are several ways that the food service sector is working towards more sustainable consumption and production. On top of policies like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact that promotes more sustainable food cultivation and consumption habits, technological solutions are at the center for how to cultivate greener, more sustainable food production chains.

Robotics is helping to reimagine farming. Robots, combined with artificial intelligence (AI), are already changing the ways that farmers tend and harvest their land, using data to help optimize yields, conserve resources, and more. Smart technology is also helping to pioneer vertical farming, which helps conserve land, water, and more by growing produce vertically in specially-designed greenhouses. And it is not just mass industrial-sized smart robots on vast agricultural estates that are helping to fine-tune food production and minimize waste. Small robots are in development to increase urban farming production.

But what about where everything ends up at the end of the day?

Well, robots are already on the job here, too. Smart robots are already helping to sort and sift through recyclables at waste plants or as part of this waste sorting project at Alphabet's X.

These are great advances, but they're not addressing the problem at its roots. At the most basic level, we can ease the amount of waste we send to landfills by creating less waste to begin with—and this does not mean sacrificing the dining experience.

Instead, tackling the amount of waste the foodservice industry sends to landfills can begin in the kitchen. Many facilities presently use disposable wares that are marketed as biodegradable, like “compostable” bioplastics. But studies tell us that the vast majority of these compostable wares are not recycled, ending their lifecycle after one use in the landfill.

By using reusable plates, cutlery, and glasses instead, the industry can actively work towards more sustainable practices while even improving the mealtime service.

At Dishcraft, we’re doing our part to lead, innovate, and create lasting solutions not just for facilities operators and managers, but for people and planet. Dishcraft is an end-to-end dishroom that delivers reusable wards cleaned by our specially-designed robot. We’ve built state-of-the-art “smart robots” that clean and scrub all wares in a dishroom, inspecting each and re-cleaning if necessary.

We’ve applied a technology to solve a real-world problem, helping to reduce the amount of waste sent by food service operators and facilities managers to landfills. In the process, we’re helping businesses to save money. According to UPSTREAM, Bay Area businesses that reduced their single-use plastic usage by integrating reusable wares into their operations have saved up to $150,000 per year.

That’s a cost savings that also saves the environment, something most entrepreneurs, businesses, and diners can rally behind.

The next time someone tells you sanitation cannot be sexy, tell them about how robots are creating new solutions for our environmental challenges, helping to work for people and planet.

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