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  • Writer's pictureMaitane Alonso

Generation Z came to save us

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

A 19-year-old inventor wants to end food waste.

With her food preservation machine, Maitane Alonso fights some of the causes that cause the loss of tons of food on a global scale every year. Her award-winning project has received NASA attention and first prize at the world's largest science and technology event.

For Maitane Alonso (Sodupe, Bizkaia, 2001) the best thing is not to know that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has named an asteroid after her, but to have been lucky enough to find a passion, in her case science, before 18-year-olds: "Knowing that you have the rest of your life to dedicate yourself to it is surreal," she says. Maitane Alonso explains it at the age of 19 but, in reality, the concern was already there when she was a girl. A few years ago, from the family "txoko" in Sodupe, a small town in Bizkaia, where his father prepared huge barbecues, she found herself face-to-face with a personal challenge: how to prevent food scraps from being wasted? Today, after many tests and experiments, this medical student, thanks to an innovative machine for preserving food, has already won a thick list of recognitions, among them, the first world prize for sustainability and the second prize for microbiology in the Intel ISEF, the contest organized by the Society for Science & the Public and considered the most important science and technology event in the world. She has also been able to present his project to NASA at the 2018 AMLAT Science Expo, held in Chile.

A third of all food produced globally is wasted: 1,300 tons of food lost each year

Maitane has touched the stars, but she insists with her feet touching the ground: the important thing about having reached so high is her overflowing illusion to change things and the opportunity to dedicate herself to it. "What I always try to convey to people is that the time for change is now and it is also the time to act, it is in our hands to be able to change and improve everyone's situation."

The reality imposed by the covid-19 pandemic confirms Maitane's argument that, indeed, the time may be now: global waste was reduced by 14% during confinement according to a study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture and the AECOC (Spanish Association of Commercial Codification), which also points to an increase in food donations.

Will we be able to introduce into our lives something that we learned in confinement? What Maitane discovered with her own personal concern is that, for the solution of this great problem, one part is in the will and another in science and technology.

On the importance of asking yourself questions

The problem, without a doubt, is enormous: while hunger in the world continues to increase, a third of all the food that is produced globally is wasted. There are 1,300 million tons of food thrown away each year, among other reasons, due to problems associated with conservation methods. But it is not just food that we lose: as much water is wasted on wasted food each year as the equivalent of the content of one hundred million Olympic swimming pools. With one of these terrifying facts, Maitane found herself as she began to worry about the amount of food left over at family barbecues.

That became the beginning of a long list of questions for the young woman who, at that time, was 16 years old. But the questions never emerge alone, one question leads to another and that to another, until a path is created. Until another spark arises. One afternoon, Maitane realized that, in just a few minutes, the "curious" smell of her brother's sneakers had disappeared when she left them next to a generator of electrical charges that they had bought. And there she began to relate concepts: “On the one hand, the smell is caused by microorganisms and, if the smell had disappeared, the microorganisms too; on the other hand, the expiration date of food is given by the growth of microorganisms. So I started to ask how we could apply this to the food industry ”. Maitane could have left it all there, but no, the fuse of unease was already lit. The first prototypes began: "I made the first machine with things that I found at home, a piece of a broken blind, two plastic boxes and connecting everything as best I could with the knowledge I was acquiring." After the simplest tests, other more scientific ones arrived, until one of the prototypes worked. The idea, explains the young woman, follows the same logic as that of her brother's sneakers: it consists of treating the air inside a container by means of electric discharges so that the air molecules themselves kill the microorganisms and, from this way, the shelf life of the food is lengthened.

Maitane and the machine she created to reduce food waste.

With that first prototype, which they already used at home to preserve their own food, she entered the first scientific contest animated by her family. “I find it worrying that many times a lot of things are investigated and a lot of things are done that are then forgotten in a drawer... It is essential to go out and tell the investigation, that in the end the investigation does not understand gender or age, and it is for everyone and for everyone ”.

Without support, research is impossible

From the first prize in the first contest, the Zientzia Azoka of Elhuyar in Euskadi, successes began to follow. “I was seeing how, fair after fair, the prototype was being awarded and it was generating interest among people. That motivated me to continue with the investigation. In addition, I thought that the industry needed an alternative since the stores were also throwing away a lot of food ”. Maitane created, supported by different companies, an industrial machine based on the same method and with which she would later go to the US for the MIT contest. And from there, with the first prize, the asteroid with his name would arrive later (a privilege that people such as Salvador Dalí, Rafael Nadal or Pedro Duque have achieved in Spain).

“Although it seems surreal to me, in reality for me the asteroid is the least of it, because what has been able to give me the award is a platform to claim that there are people without support who are developing projects simply to be able to achieve a better future between everyone".

“We are super stereotyped as the 'neither-nor' generation, who neither study, nor work, nor do anything. And there are a lot of young people who want to move and do things, but who simply find themselves with many limits”, says Maitane Alonso.

Throughout the conversation, Maitane will not stop insisting on the enormous amount of barriers and prejudices that young people face for the mere fact of being young. In addition to the emotional and financial support from her family, the young woman had to work to finance the project and, although today she already has her own company, she recognizes that the lack of institutional support often pushes her to abandon good projects. “It is a particularly sensitive issue when we talk about young people, we are super stereotyped as the neither-nor generation, who neither study, nor work, nor do anything. And there are a lot of young people who want to move and do things, but who simply find themselves with many limits ”.

Help create references for all girls and women

In addition to continuing with her own company, which will undoubtedly revolutionize the battle against food waste, and continuing to study medicine - she says that her dream has always been cancer research - Maitane dedicates a good part of her time talks in schools and institutes. “Personally, the conferences fill me a lot, I had the support of my family, but I am aware that there are people who may not have it and so it seems very important to give it to them from outside. Seeing the reaction of people, who participate and get involved and, above all, get someone to feel inspired and help them take their first step, is something that makes me immensely happy, really ”.

Maitane believes that it is important for the girls to be encouraged to dedicate themselves to research that they can count on close and non-abstract references: "They think of a woman scientist and only name Marie Curie." But, she insists, the important thing is to enjoy the freedom to choose: “It is not that now, as there are few girls in the technological field, they are forced to all go. It is about giving them the tools so that in a real equality they can find what is right for them and that they can dedicate themselves to it ”.

Article published in El País:




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