A couple of months ago, Leonardo Amico, an interaction designer based at Fabrica, connected romaine lettuce leaves into an electrical circuit, attached a CMOS logic chip and a couple of oscillators to transform the voltage into tone, and recorded the result.

Although lemons and potatoes are better known for their science-fair double life as batteries, fresh lettuce also contains the electrolytes required to generate current across a circuit. As it dies its lingering post-harvest death, however, lettuce, like all produce, continues to respire, desperately consuming its own carbohydrate reserves as its cell membranes break down and its water content evaporates.

Fresh lettuce 460

Wilted lettuce 460

IMAGES: Processing Decay, Leonardo Amico, via Flickr.

Without the life-support of artificial refrigeration and modified atmosphere storage, the result, in only a matter of days, is a wilted, brown, weeping mess. In technical terms, the lettuce has experienced massive electrolyte leakage.

The visual, tactile, and olfactory signals of a lettuce’s tissue breakdown and death will be familiar to anyone who has overlooked a bag of leaves or head of iceberg in the bottom drawer of their fridge—an annoyance rather than a minor tragedy. Listening to the sound of decomposition, however, is curiously affecting. As the lettuce’s cell structure and water content changes, so, too, does its voltage, and thus its sonic output, from the bright, tinny, and surprisingly speedy pulse of a crisp, green leaf to the mournful, fog-horn honks of a five-day-old compost-pile candidate.

According to National Resources Defense Council report (PDF) issued last year, American households throw out, on average, a quarter of the food they purchase, with fruit and vegetable spoilage cited as the primary reason, and poor visibility in refrigerators responsible for at least part of the problem. If, in the logic-chipped smart household appliances of the future, lettuce death could modulate a refrigerator’s hum, singing its own end with a reproachful, rallentando drone, might we waste less food?