Food from your favourite local restaurants, brought to your door. What’s not to like? When you’re tired, busy, hungry, or too lazy to get groceries, cook or clean, it really does feel like a panacea to be able to push a button and be able to tuck into a meal.

But what happens when you’re done eating? The plastic containers, napkins, delivery bag, and plastic cutlery all go straight into the trash. In the Hong Kong context, it’s very likely they go straight to the city’s burgeoning landfills or into the sea.

If the plastic waste finds its way into the water, there are several nasty scenarios: it can outlive us depending on the type of plastic, or it can break down eventually but absorb toxins and end up in our drinking water sources, throttling unsuspecting marine life, or quite often in the bellies of the very fish that ends up on our plates.

Recycling, in whatever form it takes in Hong Kong or other cities, is not a good enough solution because it’s far more complicated than we all think. Waste has to be sorted, cleaned, and categorized. Adequate facilities have to exist. Logistics are complicated.

There is also a behavioral reality attached to it: if people don’t have time to cook or clean, are they truly going to sort, clean, categorize and then cart their garbage to appropriate bins?

All of this is inherently filthy to think about or dig into. Hong Kongers are busy people, need to eat, and want convenience. But, sapere aude, because the reality of the trash we and the businesses we support create, means an environmental and health catastrophe for us and our future generations.

I reached out to Foodpanda, Deliveroo, and UberEATs, as three significant food delivery players in the Hong Kong market to ask for their outlook on this rubbish situation (quite literally). Here is what I learnt and confirmed:

  • Foodpanda and Deliveroo enable a button to opt in or out for plastic cutlery, but this is not available across all restaurants. According to Deliveroo’s public relations agency, half of their restaurant partners currently provide an opt-in choice.

  • For the most part, this choice for customers only exists if restaurants (either unprompted because their owners or staff already care, or prompted by customers) reach out to food delivery businesses asking to provide that option. Foodpanda and Deliveroo both tell me that they hope to reach out to all restaurant partners to suggest they offer these choices, instead of waiting to hear from them.

  • As for other packaging solutions, Foodpanda Hong Kong management says they are looking at offering better packaging solutions to their restaurant partners. The company has transitioned to paper bags instead of plastic, though they will continue to use the plastic ones until the existing stock is “phased out.” Deliveroo already delivers in paper bags.

  • UberEATs was not able to share any information with me except for a statement about how they are “exploring ways to help their restaurant partners find ways to have more sustainable practices.”

The reality is that food delivery businesses haven’t been constructed with product life-cycle in mind. They may not directly be responsible for the packaging as restaurants provide that, but they certainly are directly responsible for getting that packaging to customers and strongly promoting food delivery.

As much as we all love having meals delivered to our homes and offices, it is difficult to reconcile the need for convenience and food, and for these businesses, their profits, with the fact that this current convenience and commercial opportunity is going to make our lives frighteningly difficult in the future.

Photo: Jon Russell.

So how do we alleviate these dangerous repercussions if these businesses want to do well, if restaurants want the orders, and if customers want to eat conveniently? Working within the parameters of these businesses continuing to be around, and customers wanting the services, here are my suggestions.

Food delivery businesses need to step it up and become more responsible.

  • Don’t use plastic bags for delivery at all. Ever. There is such a vast quantity of information out there on the single-use plastic and waste situation, that using and pushing out plastic bags into our city is wilful ignorance at this point.
  • Instead of the opt-out choice being sporadically offered, offer an opt-in choice. Make it the default not to provide cutlery. Most customers order food from homes or offices, where they have access to chopsticks and forks. If someone is in dire utensil-less straits and needs to eat with a plastic utensil that will knowingly go to a landfill or into the ocean, let them make that choice and take the extra step to ask for it.
  • Strongly market the suggestion that customers use their own cutlery and intentionally promote responsible behaviour. Irresponsible behaviour is being made very simple and appealing thanks to your services, so it’s time to right that ship.
  • In the same vein, consider rewarding responsible behaviours to create positive changes. Reward customers who don’t use plastic cutlery. Reward restaurants or promote them for using better packaging.
  • Recommend or provide better packaging options to restaurant partners. Some of this seems to be in the works, but it needs to be a high priority because it simply isn’t enough to leave it all to the restaurants.
  • Think of bigger ways to move your businesses forward responsibly. Experiment with reusable boxes with a deposit system and drop off points, or have your drivers pick them up with the next delivery. Do a survey – your customers might be very willing to put in deposits if you share your reasons, or may respond favourably to a drop-off system. This would certainly save money on packaging in the long-term. One meal-kit service in the U.S. called Terra’s Kitchen is already working on a similar model as is GoBox, which works directly with restaurants.
Photo: Pixabay.

As customers, we are hardly off the hook ourselves. If we want the convenience of delivered food, there’s a bit of legwork we need to do on the responsibility front.

  • Some restaurants respond favourably to customers reaching out to ask for the previously mentioned opt-out option for cutlery, so if you use any of these apps, talk to the restaurants you order from if they don’t currently offer that option. Just because an opt-out choice exists and you make it, doesn’t mean the nasty plastic won’t arrive anyway, so if you notice a restaurant has been ignoring the choice, call them or tell your delivery provider.
  • Try to carry your own steel straws, chopsticks and reusable cutlery to your office or with you generally so you don’t fall into the dire utensil-less straits situation.
  • Some restaurants use biodegradable plastic of different descriptions. Encourage each restaurant you spend your money at to do the same. Be aware that biodegradable packaging is not a magic solution to the waste problem, but at least, it’s one step in the right direction. The more they hear requests from customers for better packaging, the more impetus there will be to make the change.
  • Actively choose restaurants that use better packaging, or foods that arrive in paper versus plastic.
  • If any of our local delivery companies do experiment with reusable containers, participate.
  • If you have recycling bins in your homes or offices, use them, but be aware that unless you clean and sort your trash, the current system is very far from a fail-safe solution to make sure anything gets recycled. If you are a serial food orderer or an office or retail facility that orders in, it may be worth setting up a subscription with HKRecycles to come collect your plastic waste as they attempt to systematically collect and track recyclables in Hong Kong. As for the rest of us, reuse and reduce is the best step forward.
Photo: Wikicommons.

There are obvious steps governments can take as well, in the shape of taxes (like the UK government is considering), various bans or fees (like Kenya’s new plastic bag ban), public-private partnerships to subsidize recycling (like Taiwan), and investments into recycling facilities or into new tech that may help.

But there’s no magic wand to wave here, and as customers and businesses, we can’t sit around waiting while our oceans and landfills teem with the evidence of our collective irresponsibility. Let’s do what we can.

Sai Pradhan

Sai Pradhan is an advisor, writer, and artist. For more on her advisory work, please see her LinkedIn profile. To see her artwork, please see her website.