Chulalongkorn University recommends practices to reduce plastic waste generated from online food ordering

Save the Earth, Reduce Plastic Waste in the Time of the Online-food Ordering Frenzy

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the online food-ordering business has grown exponentially in parallel with the amount of plastic waste generated that has seen a 60% increase.  The Environmental Research Institute, Chulalongkorn University (ERIC) points out that it is high time for all sectors to help reduce waste through the 3 Re Principles.

When the coronavirus outbreaks began in early 2020, followed by lockdown measures, and social distancing practice mandates to help mitigate the spread, conservation behaviour has been put on hold for the time being.  In its place came online ordering along with billions of containers and plastic bags a year. Even for restaurant dine-in, cutlery and plates are also wrapped with plastic for each guest.

A report by ERIC shows that the amount of plastic waste between January and April 2020 increased from the same period in 2019 by 62 percent, the majority of which is non-recyclable single-use plastic bags, styrofoam boxes, plastic bottles and cups.

ERIC also predicts that the amount of plastic waste from online food delivery businesses will increase to over 2,325–6,395 billion pieces per year in the next 4 years (2025).

Plastic waste from food delivery forecast by ERIC
Plastic waste from food delivery forecast by ERIC

“3 Re” steps to reduce waste from online food ordering

While clicking to order food online, clients tend to only think of menus and food prices.  The more they order, the more discounts they earn from competing for food delivery platforms. Little do they know that they are increasing the amount of plastic waste.  So, all that many people can do is to separate the trash before discarding it. Some people may do a bit more by cleaning and drying the containers before putting them in the bin.

The roles of food delivery platforms

The food delivery business has been growing steadily in recent years. Today, competitive pricing and speed strategies may no longer be the only measures of success when consumers are selective of their service providers who care about the environment. This is a new challenge for forward-thinking entrepreneurs, who should turn their attention to reducing plastic waste that is flooding the world, and take the lead and differentiate themselves while boosting their earnings from the “green” image.

ERIC adapted the familiar 3 Re principles to the current situation.

Reduce – Consumption

This can be done immediately by the platform operators by adding a default “no plastic cutlery” function.  Customers can turn it off if they want to receive the plastic cutlery. Currently, this practice has started around the world, and some operators use this as an incentive by giving discounts to customers who do not take plastic utensils. Most customers choose discounts, but the platform operators have to make sure the stores follow the guidelines.

Example of automatic “no plastic cutlery” function on food delivery platforms

Replace – with Alternative Packaging

This approach may be able to help control a certain amount of waste as it relies heavily on the source – the restaurant.  Yet, if successful, this will significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste without consumers having to worry.  Better yet, faster success can be achieved with cooperation from the government in controlling alternative packaging cost, which is currently higher than plastic packaging.

Reuse – Reusable Packaging

This approach is not yet popular in Thailand, but some small entrepreneurs have already begun experimenting with this measure, such as using a deposit-return system by designating container return points in business and residential buildings or making return appointments through an application. This approach is likely to have the most significant impact if consumers perceive the program’s importance and cooperate.

Example of a deposit-return system

Must the government mandate and enforce the measures?

Plastic Ban Policy in the People’s Republic of China is a case study that suggests that if the government is strict, enforcement measures will work.  Examples include a ban on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets, a ban on non-biodegradable packaging for online food delivery business in major cities like Beijing, before expanding to other cities across the country, as well as bans by several EU countries on the manufacturing and usage of 8 types of single-use plastic: cutlery, chopsticks, plates, straw, cotton swabs, stirrers, balloon sticks, foam boxes and other products that contain OXO (non-biodegradable plastic).

Both case studies reflect the importance of the government’s stance and role in the eradication of plastic waste that can be impactful and extensive.  The Thai government, meanwhile, continues to choose a “voluntary cooperation” approach rather than enforcement.  Such policy requires the participation of all parties, especially the business sector.  If this approach proves effective, then a strict measure is not necessary.

Many can now understand the guidelines for online food ordering that will incur the least amount of trash.  Although we cannot eliminate 100 percent of the plastic waste from this activity, we can still be a part of the solution to the overflowing plastic trash in our big cities. If we are all aware of the problem and play a part in solving it, soon we can expect to see a sustainable decline in plastic waste figures.