The USD 65.8 billion food delivery industry – China’s environmental nightmare

  • Published: 6 May 2019
  • Author: Carmen Lau

China is the world’s largest consumer of online takeaway food. The volume of China’s food ordering and delivery market reached 441.5 billion yuan (USD 65.8 billion) in 2018, a 112.5 percent increase compared with 2017. It is predicted that the market will continue to double in the next three years, revolutionizing the way people in the region eat and exacerbating China’s already serious waste problems.

A report by iiMedia Research disclosed the combined waste of the three major food ordering apps; Baidu Waimai, Ele.me and Meituan Waimai. Each day, their 256 million users collectively discard 65 million food containers, 20 million chopsticks, and 20 million plastic bags. Consumer behavior, business practices, recycling and waste treatment have all failed to keep up with the rapidly growing industry. With the number of food delivery users in China expected to double by 2020, the severity of the single-use waste problem is expected to worsen unless big steps are taken.

A sign of change

The environmental cost of food delivery has attracted the attention of environmental organizations in the region. Leading the charge, Chongqing Green Volunteer League, an environmental NGO in China, filed the first lawsuit against all three food delivery apps in 2017. The apps were sued for their failure to facilitate customers’ choice, when selecting the number of pairs of chopsticks they need per meal. An oversight which has led to wasted natural resources and ecological degradation. Though the case is currently awaiting a verdict, news of the lawsuit has resulted in food delivery platforms offering customers the option to waive single-use cutlery. Challenges still exist, with users reporting that cutlery is delivered with their meal despite opting out of the service. A cited cause is that many restaurants continue to send cutlery due to fears of complaints and bad comments.

Looking for solutions: China and beyond

According to #breakfreefromplastic, the app giants are carrying out the following measures to cut down on waste:

  • Meituan has rolled out a series of measures to cut down single-use plastic. Using Changning district as a trial, Meituan is now encouraging restaurants to replace plastic carrier bags with paper bags. They are also working with recycling partners to process and reuse a subset of plastic boxes.
  • Ele Me is tackling plastic waste by rolling out edible chopsticks, made of flour, butter, sugar and milk. The chopsticks can last up to 10 months and are degradable within one week.
  • Baidu Takeout has announced that it will award restaurants that use environmentally-friendly packaging by boosting their ranking in search results.

Experts continue to doubt whether these measures will sufficiently reduce the massive scale of China’s food delivery waste problem. The following practices may not be directly transferable to the China context, could be considered as long-term solutions to tackling the waste problem.

Recyclable and biodegradable packaging

In Australia and the United Kingdom, hamburgers and sandwiches are wrapped in biodegradable oiled paper, while pizza is delivered in recyclable cardboard boxes. Chinese delivery orders typically consist of a mix of dishes accompanied by sauce, which are not suitable for oiled paper or cardboard packaging. Small players like Saucepan in Shanghai have started to use biodegradable packaging in their delivery process. Local restaurants and delivery apps already in operation in Shanghai are unable to scale changes their products or services.

Biodegradable materials comprise of about 4% of Saucepan’s costs, which is significantly higher than the price of plastics. The higher costs associated with environmentally friendly packaging options, lower the demand in Shanghai. This hinders the ability of companies wanting to be more sustainable to find suppliers and achieve economies of scale.

Encouraging the use of reusable utensils

In Japan, some restaurants offer reusable utensils with delivery orders. When customers finish their meal, they can simply wash and leave them outside their door for a delivery courier to collect. In China, the environmental awareness of customers is relatively low. In a survey conducted by the China Youth Daily, 71.6% of respondents said they were unaware of the environmental issues involved in food delivery. Unless substantial discounts or incentives are offered, consumers typically order delivery for convenience and time-saving reasons. Therefore, a surcharge of 1 or 2 yuan for disposable utensils will likely have no effect on consumer behavior.

Policies and public–private partnerships

Strict laws and regulations to ban single-use plastics, including the use of food containers are increasingly prevalent in countries and cities worldwide. Last year, the European Union banned plastic consumer items including plates, cutlery and straws as of 2021. In 2019, the City of Berkeley passed legislation introducing a 25-cent fee for each disposable cup purchased at restaurants. By January 2020, the city has mandated a transition to compostable dishes and utensils for all takeout meals.

In China, though national laws and regulations are currently absent, provincial and municipal governments are stepping up to deal with local problems. For instance, the Department of Ecology and Environment of Hainan province drafted a plan in 2018, which aims to fully ban the production, sale and use of single-use and non-degradable plastic items by 2025. A number of local governments are also experimenting with public-private partnerships. The Shanghai Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau, for example, launched a trial program in April of this year. The program requires food delivery services to use environmentally friendly food packaging in Shanghai’s Changning, Pudong and Putuo districts. Restaurants that fail to follow the rules will be punished through a points system. The measure is expected to cut down plastic waste by 75 percent.

For the foreseeable future, disposable takeaway collateral will continue to create waste management issues in China. Multi-faceted approaches to tackling this issue include; consumer education, innovation for sustainable materials and business practices, incentives for customers, restaurants and food delivery platforms, policies and public–private partnerships.

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