What Do Food Waste, Yogurt Lids and Lotus Leaves Have in Common?

By Doug Studer, CEO and Biomimicry 3.8 Specialist, Deskey Branding

Did you know that nearly 40% of all food purchased in the United States is wasted? Most of it ends up in landfills. Enormous amounts of energy go into growing, processing, transporting and disposing of that food. In the landfill, it generates methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

On a global scale, if we focus on a single food — yogurt — 17% of it goes to waste. That is 1.5 million tons annually! The amount of discarded yogurt stuck to lids alone is equivalent to the volume consumed in Africa in a single year, according to a calculation by Toyo Aluminium.

Consider now the lotus plant, in particular its leaves. In 1977, A German botanist named Wilhelm Barthlott studied lotus leaves under a microscope. He discovered the plant’s secret to staying clean and dry in its muddy environment. The surface of the lotus leaf is covered in millions of microscopic bumps, like a miniature mountain range. Those little peaks give the leaf ultra-hydrophobicity — they repel water very effectively. The valleys between the peaks create air pockets that stop water droplets from contacting the leaf’s surface. The slightest movement causes the droplets to bead up and roll off, and when they do, they take all the dirt particles with them. Think back to the last time you made a snowman. As you rolled the snow, it picked up whatever was in its path. On a leaf, this is called the lotus effect.

Back to yogurt. Incorporating the lotus effect, Toyo Aluminium and Morinaga Milk created a "stick-free” lid for their yogurt products. The inside surface of the lid incorporates those tiny mountains, which, in a way similar to the lotus, does not allow liquid to stick. Any yogurt that comes into contact with the lid simply rolls back into the cup. Using this technology on a global scale could save some of the millions of tons of food wasted annually and allow the clean lids to be recycled easily.

Through our BluEarth practice, we are committed to creating more sustainable design by learning from nature. When it comes to food waste, there is so much work to be done. We can create packages and materials that reduce waste, but the bigger solution lies in connecting hearts and minds to the environmental and humanitarian toll. We need to change the way we view food waste by communicating both the problem and solution in design that inspires new beliefs and new behaviors.

So, if you are someone who looks forward to the little indulgence of licking the last bit of yogurt from the lid, thanks to the lotus, you might soon be getting your last licks on the spoon. But, you’ll have the satisfaction of dropping that lid into the recycling bin rather than adding to the landfill.

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