A group of environmentalists from the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing are suing three delivery services for harming the environment by providing too much disposable cutlery.

According to the No.4 Beijing Intermediate People’s Court, it accepted the case filed by the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing last Friday.

The defendants are three tech companies operating online delivery services – Baidu Waimai, Ele.me, and Meituan Waimai. They are among the biggest food delivery platforms in China.

china food delivery
An Ele.me food delivery driver. Photo: Internet photo via Apple Daily.

According to an announcement issued by the court, the environmental group filed the lawsuit on the grounds that “there were defects in the food delivery platforms’ business models.” According to the court, the plaintiff said that the platforms “did not provide an option for users to choose whether they wanted disposable cutlery, causing the system to provide disposable cutlery to users by default after they ordered their meals.”

The group alleged that this system created huge waste in resources and great ecological damage.

The court said that the material provided by the plaintiff was sufficient as preliminary evidence that the defendant potentially damaged the public interest.

‘No cutlery’ option

According to financial magazine Caixin, Meituan Waimai does provide a no-cutlery option, though its location is not very apparent. Ele.me’s disposable cutlery options start at “one,” while Baidu’s default option is set to “please provide cutlery.”

The League held a forum in Beijing on Monday to discuss the case. A representative said that the group was not opposed to the production or sale of disposable chopsticks, but it filed the lawsuit in the hope that people would make the best use of every pair provided.

Aside from requiring that delivery platforms add no-cutlery options, the League also asked the court to hold them accountable for the damage they have already caused to the environment by requiring them to restore, or pay to restore, the environment.

“But right now this is a very difficult point. How to quantify the damage, how to calculate it as an amount? It’s very difficult,” the representative said.

In a response to Caixin, Meituan Waimai told the magazine that it added a no-cutlery option at the end of August, and that it would subsequently hold a campaign encouraging consumers to decrease their use of disposable items such as chopsticks and napkins.

No obligation 

Ele.me said that there were no national environmental standards governing eating utensils, so the platform had no power to require vendors to provide environmentally-friendly cutlery. But it added that it would provide an option for consumers to opt-out of cutlery.

Meanwhile, Baidu Waimai said that the utensils provided depended on individual vendors and it had no power to control it.

But Zhou Ke, a law professor at Remin University, told Caixin that, according to the law, enterprises have an obligation to protect the environment and give customers the knowledge and the right to choose whether disposable chopsticks will be included in their meals.

“For regulating new types of businesses, this case is a very good opportunity to improve the environmental threshold for such new business projects,” he said.

The online food delivery market in China has seen rapid growth in recent years. In the first half of 2017, the number of users on food delivery apps increased 41.6 per cent to 295 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre, the government’s online industry overseer.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.