The dawn of food delivery apps have made many of us wonder how we lived without these. The convenience, efficiency, accountability that these apps have afforded us as consumers has been quite liberating. Yes, there are many unresolved issues including how fair these companies are towards their delivery partners, how transparent their pricing is etc. among many other issues.
What I’ll focus on this post is not those established issues, but rather the enormous opportunity for a massive overhaul in how food delivery happens. And it has to do with the packaging containers used for the deliveries.
The damage to the environment
As an environmentally conscious consumer I find it problematic as to how much plastic is used in the packaging each time I order some food. And nearly all the food we buy come in flimsy plastic containers, aluminum foil, soft plastic bags or paper bags. Based on some rough estimates, we place 2.96 billion orders per year on just Zomato and Swiggy, which have roughly 90% of the market share of the organized food delivery sector in India. And these two companies cumulatively use approximately 264,000 tonnes of plastic per year.
I tend to prefer Zomato for its friendlier user interface and ease of use. Today I saw a message on their app that assured that Zomato is a green company that is 100% plastic neutral. I am not sure how safely I can trust that claim. But even if it is true, I have major concerns.
First, we need to have a closer look at the actual benefit of this whole claim regarding “plastic neutrality”. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Zomato has indeed recycled that much plastic. Does that actually amount to anything in terms of reversing the damage that production/consumption of so much plastic does? At the outset, it may seem like Zomato is undoing the damage that such massive use of plastic inherently comes with. But there is a very key point that we mustn’t miss - how much of that recycled plastic goes back into making new plastic containers that get used for food delivery? It’s not as if recycled plastic is the same as virgin plastic, especially in the context of producing food grade plastic containers. And if we are using recycled plastic to make food containers, that should be even more alarming considering that it is hard to ensure that the recycling process doesn’t introduce contaminants into the recycled product that may be harmful for our health. And if we are using virgin plastic, it means that all the recycling isn’t really doing much to contain the production and introduction of new plastic in the global ecosystem. Therefore, the claim of “Plastic neutrality” being ultimately beneficial to the environment is just a gimmick. It certainly does the trick in projecting a green image for the company when you don’t examine the claim closely. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly better than if they used as much plastic and didn’t recycle at all. But it is also not as significantly beneficial as it looks at the outset.
We’ve all seen the images of the sea creatures struggling with straws and other plastic stuck and often infused into their bodies, birds having microplastics in their bodies and dying from it and sometimes interfering with their physiological functions, plants containing plastic within their tissues, ocean ecosystems being damaged by the accumulation of microplastics, the general harm to the environment and our own bodies with the presence of microplastics in our surroundings and so many other issues that come with our rampant production of plastics.
The direct damage to health
Regardless of the grade of plastic used, as a health conscious consumer, when I see hot food arriving in plastic boxes, it does bother me. These flimsy plastic containers often undergo changes due to the heat of the food they contain. The lids bend out of shape, there is certainly a possibility that certain chemicals in the plastic can seep into the food, especially when that plastic is exposed to the heat. Some might argue that there isn’t enough well-established evidence to suggest that plastic containers are unsafe. Those who benefit from the use of these plastics will argue that because there is no evidence to suggest that it is definitively unsafe, it is in fact safe. That would be a fallacy. But given that we don’t know for sure, I’d rather not take that chance.
Even if these plastic containers are indeed safe for storing food for direct consumption, the fact that the rate of plastic recycling in the world is on average less than 10% of what is produced, and even the recycled plastic has a limited number of times for which it can be recycled before it becomes useless. This number is estimated to be between 1 and 10 times depending on the type of plastic, although most types cannot be recycled more than once.
So where do all the non-recyclable plastics eventually end up? Most of it goes to landfills or the ocean, where it disintegrates into microplastics and nanoplastics and enters the soil, plants, microorganisms which are consumed by insects from where it travels up the food chain until it all ends up on our plate and into our bodies eventually.
The ultimate problem
The point is that regardless of whether the food grade plastics that our food is delivered in are directly harmful or not, the actual problem is the sustained mass production of plastics. There is no safe destination for all the plastic that we produce. And it is happening so easily and massively because it is easier and cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle or safely destroy them. And as long as we keep producing plastic at such a rate, there is no escape for us. It will eventually come to harm us. Studies have already established that microplastics can already be found in human gut, bloodstream, tissues and lungs. The research is still nascent, and we don’t know how the presence of these microplastics in our bodies can ultimately affect us and how widespread and malignant this can become. But one thing is for certain - it cannot be good for us.
So far I’ve discussed the volume of plastic used in the food delivery industry and the general detrimental impact of mass production of plastics. If it appears as though I am standing in opposition of these swanky food delivery apps, that’s certainly not the case! In fact, the central thesis of this post is that the rise of these apps and the general organization of the food delivery industry has given rise to a unique opportunity to mitigate the problem of plastic pollution. We now stand the chance of doing something impactful about the uncontrolled production of plastic that we wouldn’t have had if the sector was unorganized.
As you may already have gathered from the title of this post, the solution I’m proposing is the use of reusable containers by the food delivery apps. When it comes to plastic, the benefits of recycling is nearly negligible compared to prevention of the use of plastics.
We’ve had the perfect solution for food containers long before plastics were invented - metal containers. There is certainly merit in using higher grade reusable hard plastics to pack food. They’re not as cheap as disposable plastic containers, but they’re not as expensive as using metal. But the use of higher grade reusable hard plastics won’t nearly have the effect on the fundamental problem here as not using any plastics will.
The new containers have to have certain key features:-
- Standardized stackable shapes - The new containers can be designed in a few different shapes/volumes to accommodate a range of foods without compromising on the versatility of these containers. You wouldn’t want to store a large pizza in the same type of container as you would need for some Sambar. So, let’s say 3 or 4 different shapes for different kinds/volumes of foods. And it is critical that whether they’re empty or filled, they have to be lightweight, easy to store and transport without resulting in breaking, spillage, damage to the food or poor use of space.
- Economical, spill-proof, heat-resistant, durable - For these containers to last the lifecycle of what is essentially public property, they have to meet certain standards. They should be able to withstand temperature variances, poor handling and tampering among other abuses that any public property generally goes through. And after meeting all these standards, it should also be economical to produce, recycle and safely destroy.
- Smart containers & optimized lifecycle - Each of these containers should be individually identifiable. Even if it is simply through a tamper-proof barcode on it, it should be possible to identify these containers, associate with their interim owner, track the number of orders they’ve gone through among other vital data points so that they can be routed to periodical procedures where they’re deep-cleansed, conditioned, repaired or recycled. As much as this seems optional, this is a critical feature. People will refuse food that arrive in these containers if the containers look to be in poor shape, dirty or broken. Being able to track these containers will help us in identifying what accelerates the deterioration and help us in optimizing the durability of these containers.
These are just some potential considerations. But you get the idea. The design of these containers is fundamentally a design/engineering problem and can be easily solved if we put the right minds to the task.
Of course implementing this solution is not without its challenges. But if we’re able to implement this solution on a large enough scale, we can make a deep dent on the fundamental problem of ever-increasing plastic pollution in the world.
Please feel free to share your thoughts, suggestions and potential pitfalls you see!