How Food Waste Made Me An Inventor

We love cooking at home. My wife and I find great joy in concocting edible masterpieces, to us anyway, that elevate the goods we buy at the grocery store, filling our stomachs with nutrients and tender love. It is poetic how flour, water, salt and an egg can turn into the most wonderful pasta.

About three or four years ago we found ourselves, like we do many weekend nights, cooking a dish from a recipe book. As my wife slowly recited the ingredients, I started mentally going over them. I wondered if we had the particular ingredients or if we needed to go buy then. She said; olive oil, two garlic cloves, one pepper and one onion. I was absolutely certain we had an onion in the fridge, somewhere, and indeed we did. As I shoved my head in the fridge and looked around. I found a container at the very back of the fridge and slowly brought it forward. I opened the tupperware and, it wasn’t an onion anymore, it used to be an onion , it was now a petri dish with several colonies of bacteria and fungi thriving over our dear organic matter. “Oh what a waste”, I said to myself, and proceeded to throw out that precious onion, it almost made me cry. That vegetable had so much potential, yet, it fell victim to our forgetful minds, always focused on what’s next without remembering the past.

I had thrown out food before, many times, haven’t we all? However, this time it was different, as that onion fell in the waste basket I said to myself “man, this happens a lot, this happens too much”, and so it began, a journey to find a solution to our food waste problem. To find a solution to this issue I first had to understand it, little did I know, EVERYONE has this same problem. As a matter of fact, in average, we throw out about a quarter of the food we purchase, that’s a lot of food! A LOT OF FOOD. If we put all the food we throw out inside a 90,000 seat football stadium it would fill it up, and that’s just one day. Thus, we fill up 365 football stadiums worth of food a year, or about one per day. The environmental and economic repercussion of this waste are, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. In monetary terms, it amounts to roughly $165 billion dollars or about $400 per person.

The gravity of the situation hit me hard. What could I do to solve this problem? Right there and then in our kitchen, I had an eureka moment. What if the container I stored my food in could notify me that it’s time to use its contents before they go bad? But how could a container talk to me? Surely I would need some sort of high tech container with embedded IoT technology, a $30.00 contraption full of electronics, it would create more waste than it saved. There had to be a more cost effective solution, something that could be less expensive, and relatively easy to implement, something that could leverage the power of my smart phone for a noble cause. At that point in time, I thought of what would soon be known as Fresh Lids, a QR code equipped container that would essentially serve as a food management solution when paired with its respective accompanying smartphone app.

As I processed all these thoughts in my head I verbalized to my wife what I was thinking, I usually have tons of ideas, it’s just the way I am. I see a problem and I want to solve it, sometimes these ideas are good sometimes they are not so good and sometimes they are terrible. My wife Liliana always makes sure she lets me know if they are the previous or the latter. To my surprise, she said: “I think that is one of the best ideas you’ve had yet”. That message was enough to launch me into overdrive. I started sharing my thoughts about my solution to consumer level food waste with family and friends. Not everyone I shared my idea with thought it was good, some people said it was bland, others told me you could just use a calendar and some even let me know no one would take the time to scan the labels. But you know what? I believe in my ideas, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will, so I went on with it. I even thought it was so good, I decided to patent it because let’s be honest, having a patent is pretty cool, more on this later.

I started teaching myself how to develop Apps for iOS, first with Objective-C then with Swift. I grabbed open source code from wherever I could and modified it to suit my needs. I also took a very well known online class around the internet called Design + Code by Meng To, this truly solidified my knowledge and gave me the tools I needed to follow my vision. I spent countless weekends and night after work, designing, developing and programming my idea until I had a a good enough functioning prototype and proof of concept. I showed the app at meetups and people liked it, I was pleased and things seemed to be going in the right direction.

I’ve always been inventive, I was the quintessential techie kid growing up, taking electronics apart to see how they were built, most of them I would not be able to put back together but that’s ok. I don’t think I ever destroyed anything that was working, well except when I ran that magnet over my RC car because it said not to do that… it never worked again. But yeah, at age 8 I invented a toothbrush with retractable bristles for ease of cleaning the surface, I made a drawing of it and mailed to myself to have evidence I had invented it first, the so called poor man’s patent, a complete myth. Naturally, when I came up with the food management idea I researched how to patent it and promptly hired a patent writer to help me formulate the documents to file a provisional patent. I obtained the provisional patent and then started working on the full patent, which I am pleased to say has been granted. I am officially an inventor, thanks to food waste.

As I sit here typing this essay, feeling validated by the acknowledgement from the United States Patent and Trademarks Office that I indeed invented something that is not obvious to “a person having ordinary skill in the art”. I must admit I also feel somewhat half empty, because now comes the hard part, making people realize the product I have is worth using and buying. Even more, I have yet to prove my product will in fact reduce food waste, I know it has helped us, but without a large pool of users the dataset is just too small to know for sure. The patent office is filled with schematics and filings of inventions that didn't quite make the commercial cut, maybe for lack of marketing or maybe because no one found value in them, I hope Fresh Lids is not one of those.

The invention process, thus only ends successfully if the idea is used by the public, this is the real validation inventors seek. More than a patent, we want our product to be used, but for this to happen people need to know the product exists. Without massive amounts of money, or a commercial backer behind you doing marketing, it is extremely hard to let people know of your product. Luckily, for us who are alive in this day and age, the Internet exists, giving us alternate avenues to spread the word, and to go “viral”. And This is the real point of this essay, serving both as the medium and as the message, all wrapped in one. Warning shameless self promotion ahead: go check out my product, Fresh Lids on Kickstarter, share it and spread it around, it helps you reduce food waste by giving you visibility into your perishable goods and alerting you when they are about to go bad. Scan the containers back to see what’s inside and how long they’ve been stored in there… ain’t that cool. You can even select the foods that are about to expire and see if there are recipes where you can use them.

Let me know what you think I’d love to hear from you, and please, if you can, validate my idea. Become a backer on Kickstarter, I’d love to know if it’s actually good, bad, or insanely awesome, maybe you just haven’t heard of it yet.

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