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Students use technology to help solve problem of wilted lettuce and waste

May 29, 2017
Engineering students Jesse Roy-Cote (left) and Nathan Schleppe are working to cut food waste with modern technology
Michael Platt

Your garbage is likely filled with good intentions – but with grocery shopping involving so much guesswork, food waste is too often a withered, moldy reality.

Enter two second-year Schulich School of Engineering students with a vision to tackle shriveled salads and furry yogurt with user-friendly technology that tracks stored food, tells you how much to buy in future, and even suggests recipes for what’s left in the fridge.

“We weren’t told to just find a social problem, we were told to find a problem and actually solve it,” said Jesse Roy-Cote, an electrical engineering student.

“We don’t want to make something that sounds impressive but then it’s too complex, and people are too busy to use it.”

Tackling a social concern – in this case, food security  – is the goal of Dr. Sandy Chang’s ENGG 481 Technology and Society class, where student teams identify a real-world problem and then engineer a solution, with the final project judged by  a panel of experts.

Roy-Cote and his electrical engineering student collaborator, Nathan Schleppe, saw rotten food as a needless waste of resources, particularly for those who can ill-afford to throw money away.

Their winning solution, nominated for a University of Calgary Sustainability Award, is a tablet-like device which attaches to your fridge and then keeps track of the food inside, via scanned receipts and a swipe-right/swipe-left system recording what was eaten, or tossed.

An advanced version of the simple device, which costs roughly $50 to manufacture, will even warn you when something is nearing its best-before date.

“Sometimes you don’t realize what’s about to go bad in your fridge and it will tell you – that’s the future of this technology,” said Roy-Cote.

“The average couple can save approximately $1,500 a year, on what would otherwise have gone to waste.”

While they’ve seemingly found an affordable answer to food waste – so-called smart fridges are prohibitively expensive and generally focused more on keeping the appliance well-stocked – the whole exercise took the team out its comfort zone.

It wasn’t only engineering, but engineering for real people.

“The point of the class was teaching future engineers that if we’re trying to solve a problem, we have to consider the people we are solving the problem for, and you can’t learn enough through Google or a textbook,” said Schleppe.

“You actually have to go and meet the people who are faced with this problem, and that was a large part of the class – getting out and talking to people.”

In the end, the students interviewed close to 30 people about their grocery habits, and their food-security solution earned accolades from the judging panel and the opportunity to work with Innovate Calgary in refining their vision and making it a reality.

With Schleppe and Roy-Cote planning to donate any profit to local food charities like LeftOvers Calgary, it’s a path their instructor hopes they continue on.

“Enthusiastic and committed, they have continued to pursue their project beyond the end of the class, extremely impressive given their heavy academic load,” said Chang,  who nominated the team for a Sustainability Award.

“They certainly have the head, but also the heart for their mission to make the world a better place, the motivation for the final project in this course.”