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Fuel Your Body, Not Pollution: The Rise and The Problems of Online Food Delivery

By Defne Abali (16), Anna Evans-Woolf (17), Khushi Kotilaine (17), Nadine El Sharkaw (17), Patricia Hajszan (17), Sienna Wortley (17)

Whether it is a cheaper way of packaging goods or an invader of our ecosystems, it is no secret that plastic has become a part of our daily lives. Its role has been accentuated with the pandemic; especially in Bahrain, alongside other UAE countries through the increasing popularity of online food delivery. Although plastic is a very efficient way of keeping food fresh and preventing spills, its life doesn’t end on our dinner table. With on-demand culture taking over the world, Bahrain too has jumped on the ‘order in’ bandwagon. However, is the convenience worth the cost?

Despite its infamous reputation today, plastic was initially created to be a more environmentally friendly way of packaging. We have to take a look at its life cycle analysis and compare with other packaging options to understand the reasoning to why plastic became popular. For example, glass bottles require 55% more energy to produce and release 46% greenhouse gases in the process. Overall, plastic is a lighter material and more efficient in terms of money, resources used and transportation in comparison to other traditional materials. [1]  Another reason why plastic seems extraordinary is that it is extremely durable; the most extensive problem with plastic is also that, ironically, it is too durable!

The important question facing our planet today is are we willing to prioritize the environment over money and convenience? If we want a drink on the go, would we choose not to buy it because we don’t have a reusable cup, or would our need overcome our eco credentials? Additionally, it’s cheaper to buy convenient foods. Wrapped in plastic. For millions of people they are not financially capable of buying more responsibly. For millions more they simply are unaware of their impact. Unfortunately, there is a significant proportion of people who simply are not concerned about their eco footprint.

It is a complex problem. Is it the responsibility of big businesses to package more sustainably or is it the consumers’ to make better choices? We would argue it is the responsibility of both but, big corporations have the wherewithal to act and to lead the way and encourage big change! Unfortunately, for most businesses their first quest will be profit. And pointing out that they are contributing to saving the planet and being responsible may not be the ticket! They have shareholders to consider and their job, after all is sales and profit.

For an innovative and complex project, such as this one, we had to interview the people who have worked for online delivery companies, whether they are environmentally-friendly or not. We have contacted many of the businesses -at least the ones we could to reach- and unsurprisingly, they responded with generic, unhelpful answers. Amongst the ones that did answer. From failing to find the CEO of Talabat (one of the most popular online delivery companies in the Gulf) to not getting an answer from Ebrahim Al Jassim (the CEO and Founder of Hunger Station), we realised that it boils down to their precious profit. They are not willing to discuss solutions and that’s the bottom line.

So what’s the solution? As mentioned before, treating other materials as disposable takes a toll on the environment. According to a Denmark assessment, to match the environmental impact of a plastic bag, a cotton bag will have to be used 20,000 times regarding its water, fertiliser and energy consumption to process the fibers. Paper isn’t as innocent either by releasing twice the greenhouse gases and using 17 times more water. Furthermore, they rip apart after several uses. [2]

Concerned by the impact of other materials, Sten Gustaf Thulin invented the plastic bag in 1959. His idea was to create a bag that can be reused over and over again and use less resources. However, as of human nature, we took a short-cut, simply discarded them and made them an easy and cheap way to carry everything without realizing their harmful potential. Today, one trillion plastic bags are produced every single day. [3] But is there a better material than plastic?

An American pizza delivery company, Zume Inc., has made the switch to compostable packaging. Their solution was to use molded fiber made from sugarcane fiber, wheat, bamboo straw and other fibers. Not only are they compostable, but they are also made of agricultural waste that would be thrown away otherwise. The change in material didn’t compromise quality either. Their packaging is classified as Type 4 Molded Fiber -the highest quality molded fiber. [4] It sounds great, however would it be suitable for Bahrain, is the question. Since Bahrain doesn’t have big agricultural sites, the materials would have to be imported which skyrockets their carbon footprint. The second issue is the willingness of the companies.

Another attempted solution was to use paper containers lined with plastic which decreases the plastic required by 75%. They have the same qualities in terms of permeability and weight, therefore function is not compromised. In China; Meituan, Ele Me and Baidu Takeout attempted swapping their bowls. This change added an extra 0.20 yuan (US$0.03) per delivery, which can add up quickly and have a huge impact on profit. [5]

The best solution seems to be about what we do with the plastic afterwards: a win-win situation for the companies, the consumers and the environment. Why not start a reusing campaign where customers get a discount for bringing the containers from their previous orders? Thus, the companies have to buy less containers. They can regulate the thickness of packaging as well. If 3mm is enough, why let some restaurants use 5mm? Partnership with the government for recycling and awareness is another costless solution. Perhaps ban single-use cutlery, since most people order food home.

There are plenty of smart solutions, however they require a new mentality which will sadly take time. Most companies simply don’t care, therefore all we can do as customers is to spread awareness and avoid online food delivery or use our own containers. It is our duty to hit the first domino to create the big change.

Three minutes of pleasure, three centuries of pollution. An order of merely three desserts with ice cream. (Source: Article Authors)

Sources

[1] https://www.thisisplastics.com/environment/mean-environmentally-friendly/

[2] https://www.popsci.com/best-reusable-bag/

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_shopping_bag

[4]https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanabandoim/2019/06/19/ending-plastic-in-food-delivery-with-new-packaging/#6fdb2a005424

[5] https://www.eco-business.com/news/food-delivery-apps-skewered-for-creating-plastic-waste/

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