It’s raining, it’s dinnertime, and the fridge is nearly empty. Ten years ago, we made do; today, we use our smartphones to ‘order in’.
Takeout delivery apps have altered the landscape of how we eat, particularly in big cities. The industry is complex: Seamless, GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates, Uber Eats… . These companies are transforming at rapidly, bringing on the rise of virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens, and a customer base who may never step inside the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Then there is the delivery person bringing us our food in the rain. As outlined in a recent feature in The New York Times, the delivery workforce faces frequent injuries and a gamified pay system. Many services operate on bike which is better for the planet but increases the likelihood of injury. “I learned up close how the high-tech era of on-demand everything is transforming some of the lowest-tech, lowest-status, low-wage occupations — creating both new opportunities and new forms of exploitation, explained Andy Newman in the article.
The Larger Impact of Takeout Delivery
In the U.S. alone, packaging accounts for 30 percent of municipal solid waste. In 2017, that meant 80.1 million tons. Food delivery systems are likely encouraging this astonishing number to rise. Durable plastic dishware, straws and utensils are not recyclable after use even in the best case scenario.
Restaurant delivery is a global phenomenon — as is its impact on the environment. One of the leading Chinese delivery platforms, Meituan, delivered 6.4 billion food orders in 2018. It is estimated that Chinese takeout consumption resulted in 1.6 million tons of packaging waste (containers, utensils, plastic bags) in 2017, nine times more than in 2015. And today, China wastes less plastic, per capita, than the United States.
In the EU, University of Manchester researchers estimate that over two billion disposable takeaway containers are used every year. Most are not recycled. According to the European Commission, single use packaging makes up 70% of all marine pollution found in European seas.
Plastic bans, alternative packaging materials, and other efforts to curtail waste are on the rise. But until those become widespread, what how do our food delivery apps address food and packaging waste? How do we participate?
Leveraging Food Delivery Application Technologies to Make Change for the Better
Food delivery apps are powerful platforms with access to real time location-based data. Leveraging this power, last year Door Dash introduced a social impact program, Project DASH, to tackle hunger and food waste by using its network of restaurant partners to match uneated prepared food with hungry people. Project DASH began with a one-for-one meal program and donations made to Feeding America. Project DASH works with Transfernation to bring surplus food to food banks by allowing restaurants to request a pickup for extra, untouched food — and to dispel negative associations with surplus food donations.
Seamless has partnered with No Kid Hungry, whereby customers can round up their payment to provide meals to children facing hunger.
Through FoodFight!, a 2018 initiative that facilitates donations from restaurants to homeless shelters, Postmates-participating restaurants can use the app to have excess or unwanted food taken to a local shelter. After its pilot phase, the program was rolled out to all of Los Angeles and is now live in 19 cities.
Change is also being made on the front end of the food delivery transaction. Uber recently implemented utensil opt-in, whereby customers have to request straws, forks, and the like. The company found that it’s more effective than offering opt-out, which is the strategy currently implemented by Postmates. Deliveroo, a big contender in the UK, has utilized the opt-in function for the last year.
Other companies have gotten innovative. India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority began the RUCO initiative (Repurpose Used Cooking Oil) to encourage businesses that cook with over 100 liters of frying oil to give it to collection agencies after use. Zomato, one of the biggest food-delivery start-ups in India, has become one of these collectors, supplying used cooking oil to biodiesel manufacturers. Their technology allows restaurants to request a pick-up via the app, after which Zomato aggregates and stores oil before sending it off for biodiesel production. They’re leveraging their growing stake around the country to scale the initiative, which, as of November 2019, was only available in five cities.
Swiggy, another major Indian food delivery start-up, features a curated menu of single-serve meals known as Swiggy POP. With 20 to 30 local options to choose from, customers can order a conveniently sized meal for a flat rate, sans delivery, tax, or packaging charges. Aside from making food delivery easier for the customer, it gives restaurants the ability to better predict orders and combine deliveries more easily. Additionally, the company has rolled out Swiggy Packaging Assist, giving partner restaurants greater access to eco-friendly materials by connecting them directly with packaging vendors at a discount.
Food waste and related plastic pollution rates continue to raise alarms around the world. On the bright side, in 2017, food composting went up to 2.57 million tons from 2.15 million. And, in total, 94 million tons of municipal solid waste were recycled and composted. According to the EPA, this is comparable to reducing the emissions of 39 million cars on the road in a single year!
Food delivery apps, whose ubiquity makes them powerful agents of change, are beginning to do their part, raising awareness for plastic pollution and bridging the gap between food waste and hunger. There’s certainly more work to be done.