Food apps trade convenience for plastic waste
Last week when my friends and I were hungry, we began to discuss possible options. Should we go out to a nearby restaurant, or grab leftovers from the refrigerator? One friend suggested using a food delivery service and everyone reached a consensus and agreed.
That friend took out her mobile phone and started typing on her screen and, in less than 10 minutes, our order was placed. I have to say that I was impressed that our lunch -- from a restaurant about 5km away -- was whisked to our home and ready to consume in just under 40 minutes.
It's no secret that food delivery services make our life in Bangkok convenient since we don't have to leave our homes and brave the sun, or at times hazardous PM2.5 dust. Furthermore, we do not have to deal with traffic or long queues for a table.
On the one hand, food delivery services -- like e-commerce -- not only make our lives easier but also boost the local economy, especially small businesses as people can order food from small restaurants and not just fast-food giants. It also gives people an opportunity to buy products directly from farmers and small producers in remote areas.
Unsurprisingly, revenues of food delivery services have risen drastically in no time. According to Kasikorn Research, the revenues of food delivery services are expected to surge to between 330 billion baht and 350 billion baht, or 14% growth year-on-year. Breaking these numbers down, about 3.9 billion baht goes to motorcycle taxi drivers, 3.3 billion baht to the food delivery service operators, and the rest to restaurant operators.
GET, a big player in this industry which has 20,000 shops under its network, sold and delivered more than 300,000 glasses of bubble tea and 190,000 loaves of bread in the month of October alone. Meanwhile, GrabFood, another big player, said a combined total of 120 million orders were placed on its services in 18 provinces in the first 10 months of 2019. The most popular items sold are bubble tea, noodles, fried chicken, somtam, and pizza.
These figures show how big a role such services play in our daily lives. However, these services also generate a large amount of waste from their daily deliveries!
A local marketing page has even attributed the lack of parking space in the city to the success of these delivery apps. Previously, people had no choice but to visit food courts in shopping malls which meant dealing with traffic congestion, expensive travel fares, and polluted air. These apps save time and energy.
However, there is a price of this convenience and it comes in the form of excessive waste, especially in the form of plastic.
When we buy directly from a restaurant or a shop, we can take lunch boxes/tote bags along with us to minimise plastic waste. However, users of these services have to accept the packages that are provided to them.
The New York Times published a report last May which showed how food delivery services are drowning China in plastic. The report found that online delivery services in that country were responsible for 1.6 million tonnes of packaging waste in 2017 alone, a nine-fold increase from 2015. To be more specific, there were 175,000 tonnes of disposable chopsticks, 164,000 tonnes of plastic bags, and 44,000 tonnes of plastic spoons. More interestingly, the report found that most restaurant owners wanted to impress their customers with heavier containers or an extra layer of plastic wrap to avoid risking negative reviews because of a torn box or food spilling.
Imagine the different types of sauces and condiments Asian food has. How many plastic containers are needed for an order for one?
In Thailand, we don't have such an official study on the amount of waste generated by food delivery services. However, the Prince of Songkhla University Phuket Campus did conduct a study of three food delivery operators in Phuket in which 2,850 drivers delivered food from more than 1,000 shops between Oct 19-22. Although the study didn't record the number of orders, it found that about 26% of waste generated from these services was paper, about 25% plastic, and the rest Styrofoam. The study also raised concerns that if each driver delivered 36 meals a day, there would be an additional 37 million pieces of waste every year.
Plastic utensils are another concern since 37% of customers demand them with their order. Moreover, all drinks are delivered in plastic cups. If a driver delivers 17 drinks a day, that means at least 6,205 plastic cups are discarded every year. That number surges to 18 million if 3,000 delivery men are at work.
Coming back to our lunch, although we refused plastic utensils, the total waste was still enormous compared to my standard practice which includes carrying lunch boxes or bottles and a tote bag. But using the delivery service, I had to accept whatever was provided. Despite the convenience, I'd still rather choose the hard way.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.