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Demand for convenience is growing at the same time as our awareness of the damage we’re doing to the planet with plastic packaging. Elly Earls finds out if there’s a way to reconcile the two trends

Delivery may only make up 3% of restaurant transactions, but it’s a fast-growing part of the foodservice sector. Ordering dinner through the likes of Caviar, Seamless or Grubhub in the US, Swiggy in India, Go-Jek in Indonesia or Deliveroo in the UK has become a routine part of most consumers’ week.

One of the industry’s longest-standing players – Just Eat – has mushroomed from a team of 12 in Denmark in 2001 to a global conglomerate employing more than 3,300 people in 13 countries and serving 24 million customers across 93,700 restaurants, while relative newcomer UberEats saw its restaurant listings almost triple over the past year.

Consumer demand for convenience is only set to continue rising. UBS expects delivery sales to grow by an annual average of more than 20% to $365bn worldwide by 2030.

But there’s one big problem. While delivery services might satisfy our desire for food to our doorsteps, fast, it goes against one of our other growing priorities – limiting the damage we’re doing to the planet with plastic packaging.

Already, there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans, according to a 2014 study published in a Public Library of Science Journal, not to mention the billions of tons of plastic packaging piling up in landfills and polluting rivers and beaches.

Many of the key culprits – bottles, coffee cups, takeaway packaging, cutlery and cling film – come from the foodservice industry. In the UK alone Just Eat estimates the 100 million orders it facilitates each year could involve the delivery of up to half a billion plastic boxes.

And while discerning consumers are rejecting deliveries that are over-packaged or use containers that can’t be recycled, many operators are still using plastic and Styrofoam as well as old-fashioned aluminium containers, according to foodservice consultant Arlene Spiegel FCSI, founder and president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates.

“There are so many ‘better for the planet’ options available today however the cost is high,” she says. “Traditional paper goods and packaging typically used in fast-casual or fast-food concepts can be 5% of total sales. The better packaging, including disposable straws and lids, can bring that up to 7%.”

Companies all along the foodservice supply chain are working hard to find a way to reconcile the two trends. For example, having sold over a million plastic packaging products to UK restaurants in 2017 through its partner shop, Just Eat not only stopped selling all single-use plastic items in its shop in March, but it also established an innovation platform to develop practical alternatives. The first initiative is a partnership with Skipping Rocks Lab to trial seaweed-based sauce sachets, which are edible and decompose within six weeks.

Opting out

The delivery giant has also trialled adding a pre-ticked box on its app and website to nudge customers to opt out of receiving plastic they don’t need. As a result, more than 20% of customers decided against receiving plastic cutlery and straws that could otherwise have been delivered and discarded.

Many foodservice operators are putting the effort in too. LEON serves its food in compostable boxes, pots and paper and uses only biodegradable cutlery and paper straws, as well as working with its delivery partners to reduce the amount of cutlery it provides.

Meanwhile, Greek restaurant group Souvla, which has seen the delivery part of its business grow from zero when it opened in 2014 to around 30% today, uses two sizes of recyclable paper foldable boxes, compostable silverware and no straws whatsoever.

“We operate in San Francisco, which is progressive on many fronts, including having a mandate that packaging be recyclable or compostable, so when we opened that was very much part of our directive,” says owner Charles Bililies.

Similarly, at 4505 Burgers & BBQ Restaurant, using sustainable packaging was a given. “In San Francisco, it wouldn’t make sense to buy a bunch of plastic to-go containers or Styrofoam packaging – it wouldn’t even occur to you,” says area director Andrew Ghetia, adding that the biggest hurdle for most businesses is cost.

“Compostable packaging is certainly more expensive than your traditional Styrofoam packaging, so working with suppliers and vendors to make sure those costs are able to be shouldered by the business is essential.”

In the tiny coastal village of Shaldon in Devon, UK, sustainability-focused restaurant group ODE True Food is demonstrating how it can be done. Frustrated with the amount of plastic and polystyrene that was ending up on the beach, founder Tim Bouget decided to corral all the foodservice businesses in the area into a compostable packaging purchasing co-op.

“Our supplier said they would give the same price to every business and 70% of businesses started buying from them,” he explains. “We’ve also coordinated delivery days so all businesses get packaging delivered on the same day, reducing transport miles.”

A seven-year-old business in Portland, Oregon – GOBox – came up with a different approach. Diners pay $3.95 per month or $21.95 per year to get their takeaway meals in reusable, returnable, eco-friendly containers, which are available from around 80 food carts and restaurants across the city.

Restaurants pay 20 cents per container, it’s all managed through an app and although the system is only being used for ‘to-go’ meals at present, CEO Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell hopes to expand to delivery in the future.

“When we reach 200 vendors, which is my goal for the end of 2019, we’re starting to reach a critical mass where I can approach a Caviar or an UberEats to figure out how it would work,” she says.

Infrastructure and education

One of the biggest challenges the foodservice industry faces when it comes to reducing its impact on the planet is the lack of recycling and composting infrastructure.

As the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Tom Tanner explains: “The issue for many operators is that they can change to better packaging, but if local waste companies don’t have the facilities then their better purchasing falls flat when it comes to the recycling.”

Although consumer awareness of the importance of eco-friendly packaging is growing, more education – as well as advocacy – is also needed, according to Ghetia. “If the demand comes from the consumers themselves, that’s really important to me; it’s going to drive my business decision,” he says. “Vocal advocacy from the consumer level is really important.”

For Spiegel, the solution is for restaurants and delivery companies to collaborate with industry and governments to aggressively broadcast new standards and the consequences of not sticking to them. “Governments can provide standards, incentives and/or penalties much like in the carbon producing industries,” she says. “The grocery industry was an early adopter by eliminating plastic bags and providing discounts for customers who bring their own reusable bags. The industry did the same thing with refrigerants, chemicals and animal testing.

“It’s common sense for all parties, especially the public and environmentalists, to work together. Change will happen when consumers use the power of the purse and the press to force all parties to do the right thing.”

Elly Earls