Online food delivery in China has jumped almost 30 percent since 2019, intensifying single-use plastic food packaging pollution and straining urban trash management. But recent research, from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Guangdong University of Technology and Tsinghua University in China, indicates that containers and utensils cleaned and reused for each order could help.
These circular solutions—which limit waste and benefit society by repeatedly exploiting the same resources—”could minimize the negative externalities of plastic food packaging,” Yuli Shan, first author on the paper published in Nature Food, tells Food Tank. “The sustainable model of sharing tableware needs to be established to achieve a win-win amongst the government, restaurants, food delivery platforms, and consumers.”
China’s takeout and delivery industry served more than 10 billion meals and more than 320 kilotons of disposed packaging in 2018, the article states. Packaging constitutes a third of municipal solid waste in the country, the planet’s top plastic polluter.
A 2020 rule seeks to decrease food delivery’s plastic utensil use by 30 percent over the next five years. But environmentalists fear that the sector’s endless expansion will thwart such goals.
A faculty research fellow at the University of Groningen, Shan and his colleagues examined how non-plastic containers and cutlery could affect takeout and delivery packaging pollution. The team compared disposable paper-based products and silicone ones that could be continuously shared after eateries or a central facility gathered and washed them between every use.
“Tableware-sharing scenarios have stronger mitigation effects on environmental impacts, reducing takeaway waste by 92 percent,” Shan tells Food Tank.
This reuse slashes the water; emissions of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen dioxides; small particulate matter; and dioxins involved in tableware production by greater than two-thirds, he adds.
Previous work assessing food delivery packaging junk in China’s megacities recommended encouraging residents to individually reuse materials, Shan says. His ideal strategy, however, requires a structural shift realized by societal collaboration.
“The government should propose incentives and punitive schemes for the adoption and safe use of sharing tableware,” Shan tells Food Tank. “Food delivery platforms should be responsible for the distribution and monitor the usage of shared items. The restaurants and the consumers could increase star ratings and receive subsidies by using and returning the reusables.”
He stresses the importance of public outreach to make people mindful of sustainability and prompt them to deposit items for rinsing.
While the researchers provide “some valuable work on measuring the impact of takeaway food on plastic use,” shared tableware seems unfeasible, according to Isabel Hilton, CEO and editor of China Dialogue.
“A system whereby takeaway suppliers also made themselves responsible for the recovery and washing of utensils, given hygiene and pandemic concerns, does not seem to me to be a system that is likely to flourish,” she says.
With a single-use plastic utensil ban effective in the nation’s big cities since the new year, Hilton suggests carrying personal chopsticks instead. They’re “widely available in China, and consumers may well prefer to keep and wash their own,” she tells Food Tank.
Although reusable tableware raises food safety questions amid the heightened health worries of COVID-19, Shan says, thorough sanitization and careful handling by cleaners, eateries, and clients would allow risk-free sharing.
In the United States, single-use plastic consumption is projected to climb, largely due to takeout and delivery’s surge during the pandemic. The study authors believe their approach could inform garbage reduction and sustainable growth policies in takeout and delivery markets worldwide.
“The sharing packaging mechanism can not only accelerate the transition to a zero-waste takeaway future, but can also be promoted to the retail, catering, and logistics industries to create a zero-waste society,” Shan says.