More than a third of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten — and berries and salads are among the most likely to end up in the trash, as both tend to spoil quickly. (ReFED, a nonprofit food waste organization, estimates that 20% of strawberries grown in a year are wasted.)
But a California-based startup called SAVRpak is pioneering a new solution: a thermodynamic sticker that fits inside a container and traps condensation, so strawberries or spinach last longer.
Bill Birgen, an aerospace engineer who previously invented technology to control the environment in jets and spacecraft, designed the patch for his own use more than a decade ago after his salads continued to wilt.
“He looked at his lunch and said, ‘My lunch is so sad – I have to do something about this,’” said Grant Stafford, co-CEO of SAVRpak, who later worked with Birgen to scale the product. “He sat down and built a few prototypes.”
[Photo: SAVRpak]The product prevents condensation, which causes food to spoil when it accumulates. The peel-and-stick patch, made of paper and vegetable pulp, is designed to stay cool.
“Our patches are colder than ambient temperature, which is why they attract moisture,” Stafford says. He likens it to what happens to a cold glass of water outside on a hot day, when water vapor in the air collects as condensation on the glass.
As products move through the supply chain, the patch kicks in when the package is temporarily not refrigerated. By keeping condensation from food in a container, Stafford explains, “we can minimize microbial growth and prevent the food from spoiling.”
The startup started working with restaurants early in the pandemic and used a frozen version of the patch that includes a small bag of ice to keep hot foods fresh — chips don’t get soggy before they reach the customer, for example. The product is now used by hundreds of restaurants.
The SAVRpak team is preparing to roll out a version of its patch for delicate products such as strawberries, which will appear in packs later this year.
[Photo: SAVRpak]In tests with growers, the patches helped extend the shelf life of blackberries, raspberries and strawberries by at least four or five days. Golden berries, a South American fruit, took at least 10 days longer than usual. Persian cucumbers lasted a whopping 28 days.
[Photo: SAVRpak]A lab test at the University of California, Davis found that romaine lettuce packaged with the patch had less spoilage and wilting, and significantly less condensation in the bag.
RCG Fruits, a supplier in Mexico that has tested the product, says it could take a week for its berries to reach supermarkets in Canada. Normally the berries stay fresh for 10 to 14 days, but factory tests with SAVRpak showed the berries could last up to 7 days longer.
“It helps us avoid rejection from retailers,” says Fernando Garibay of RCG Fruits. (SAVRpak linked Fast Company to RCG.)
The product costs pennies, the company says, so suppliers can afford to use it in lower-income countries, where refrigeration may be less common.
“In Colombia, we work with people who may not have adequate refrigeration, and we work with them when they transport their products in unrefrigerated trucks,” said Stafford. “We can better maintain their food quality.”
Other companies are working on different ways to make production last longer. Tiny sensors can travel with strawberries to monitor temperature and humidity across the supply chain, from packing stations to trucks to warehousing and distribution centers; the way the food is handled on the road can make a significant difference in how long it lasts in a supermarket or in someone’s home.
Apeel makes a plant-based coating for products that prevent spoilage, and a hyperspectral imaging tool that can determine how ripe fruit is and how quickly it should be eaten. Hazel, another startup, is making a sachet that inhibits ethylene, something fruit naturally emits that triggers the aging process.
Less fruit wasted makes a difference to the environment – it’s not just about keeping food out of landfills, but also avoiding the extra energy, water and other resources used to produce it. Food waste is responsible for about 8% of global emissions, or about three times more than the aviation industry.
SAVRpak has another challenge to solve: the waste of its own patch. At this point, the stickers should be thrown away, although they are primarily made from biodegradable materials and contain no chemicals.
“We’re always working on biodegradability,” Stafford says. “As a company, we want to see all our products disappear over time. But it’s a balance between that and shelf life, and all the things that we’re talking about – how does it work in a real rural community where it’s stored at ambient temperature. So it’s something we’re always working on.”
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