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Food delivery and takeout are on the rise. So are the mountains of trash they create.

Here’s how some companies are trying to reduce the packaging waste that comes with ordering in.

A delivery worker in a bike helmet handing a bag of food to a customer.
Delivery and takeout services are growing — and so is the amount of waste they produce.
Getty Images

About once a week, I slide open what I’ve taken to calling my “drawer of shame,” gaze at the plastic cutlery and wooden chopsticks that seem to multiply with each year, and then slam it shut with a sigh. You probably have one, too. Its contents (from takeout orders, from cross-country flights, from who knows where) do not spark joy, but I’m wracked with too much guilt to throw them away. They’ve survived a move from the city to the suburbs, which means I have plastic forks older than my daughter, who turns 11 at the end of the month. They’re a visual reminder of the plastics I have disposed of: Styrofoam clamshells, sushi trays, waxy paper pails, clear salad bowls, double-walled soup containers, sauce cups, and — deep heave — straws. And lids. So many lids.

Since plastic never truly goes away, you might say our entire planet is one giant drawer of shame. You can blame it on our obsession with convenience, and nowhere do we require convenience more than in the food and drink we order for takeaway and delivery. Take cups. Americans throw out 120 billion disposable cups every year, or 363 paper, plastic, and Styrofoam cups per person. Even the most prosaic coffee cups come with a sleeve, a stirrer, some sugar packets, and — you betcha — a lid.

“All this stuff for just one cup that will be thrown in the trash,” says Samantha Sommer, program manager of ReThink Disposable, a Clean Water Action initiative that transitions businesses from single-use products. “That’s insane.”

We’re inundating the planet with single-use plastic that isn’t being recycled

While we haven’t quantified how much of our plastic waste stems specifically from takeout, takeaway, or food delivery, we do know we’re drowning in it. In the United States, packaging as a whole — that is, for food, beverages, cosmetics, and medications — accounts for 30 percent of municipal solid waste. In 2017, this amounted to 80.1 million tons.

The rise of app-based food-delivery services like DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats, which make it easier than ever to order in and chill, isn’t helping. At least one research firm posits that the US online food-delivery market will grow 6.5 percent year over year from $22 billion in 2019 to $28 billion by 2023. Grubhub alone (which also owns Seamless) racked up $5.1 billion in gross food sales — a 34 percent increase from $3.8 billion in 2017. The same year, Uber Eats ballooned 149 percent to $1.5 billion.

The problem is that recycling, as David Pinsky, an anti-plastics campaigner from Greenpeace tells me, isn’t the silver bullet the plastics industry has made it out to be. While the average American generates 234 pounds of plastic waste every year, no more than 9 percent is typically recycled. The number is even lower now that China, once the largest buyer of America’s waste, has declared all but the highest quality of plastics verboten. Another 12 percent of plastics is incinerated, which results in toxic fumes. But a staggering majority of the plastics we use every day are buried in landfills (a.k.a. greenhouse-gas monsters), polluting coastlines and oceans, or befouling our drinking water and food chain.

This has everything to do with the way convenience packaging is designed and produced. Ketchup packets, for instance, aren’t recyclable because they comprise multiple layers of plastic and foil (same with Doritos bags or Capri Sun pouches), which are next to impossible to pull apart. Polystyrene clamshells and cutlery are easier and cheaper to make than reclaim, so recyclers don’t try. Even “technically recyclable” plastics can become landfill fodder if they harbor food residues that lower their quality and therefore value.

Still, campaigns like Keep American Beautiful — which was, surprise, formed by food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — have served only to promote what the author Finis Dunaway calls “eco-anxiety” by yoking the responsibility for trash on individual consumers, not corporate producers. “There’s been a strategic decision to focus on personal responsibility and accountability,” Pinsky says. In other words, we’ve been so laser-focused on recycling as a personal mandate (and fount of shame), we rarely ask ourselves if there’s a better alternative.

Instead of bringing your own, try borrowing a reusable

In the United States, an entire cottage industry has sprung up around “zero waste,” complete with reusable cutlery, reusable straws, reusable lunch boxes, and reusable to-go cups. But living this lifestyle requires dedication and work. And for most people, eco-anxious or not, convenience trumps work any day.

Go Box is one company that wants to take the hassle out of reusables. It services some 100 restaurants and cafes in and around Portland and San Francisco and is launching a partnership with Dig Inn, a fast-casual chain in New York City. Eventually, Go Box hopes to integrate its technological backend with online delivery platforms. But for now, customers pay a monthly subscription of $3.95 for the use of a reusable container, which they can check out at a participating vendor using a mobile app. When they’re done eating, they can drop off their container at a designated site for Go Box to collect, wash, and redistribute to its vendors.

Vendors pay a fee, as well: 25 cents for every container, which is made from food-safe polypropylene, one of the few plastics with a ready market. With 3,500 subscribers and counting, Jocelyn Quarrell, owner and CEO of Go Box, estimates the company has saved more than 225,000 single-use containers since 2011. “I think the fact consumers are paying in some and vendors are paying in some does a good job of communicating the value of the service,” she says. “It also brings to light how the true cost of single-use containers is often hidden to consumers.”

Ozzi, which operates out of Rhode Island, is a similar system popular with cafeterias on military bases, corporate headquarters, and college campuses such as Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It offers what Tom Wright, the company’s president, describes as a complete ecosystem, with a family of products that includes polypropylene clamshells, cups, and soup bowls. It uses a token system to encourage returns. Patrons use a token to “pay” for a reusable container. They get another token when they return their used container to a special machine, which houses the used foodware until it’s ready to be carted away by dining services for washing and drying.

Ozzi is a decent enough compromise, Wright says, between individual needs and the greater good. People will do the right thing, but only if there’s no friction.“We’ve become a society whereby people want the convenience of enjoying a meal where they want it, when they want it, how they want it,” Wright says.

Soon he hopes to be able to take retired containers and recycle them into new ones, creating a completely closed-loop system, but already the impact has been immediate. With 100 locations across the country — and world domination on the horizon — Ozzi has eliminated the use of 5 million single-use containers since 2014.

One product you’ll be hearing a lot more of is Vessel, a reusable cup service that piloted in New York City, rolled out in Boulder, Colorado, and is making its way to Berkeley in California. Like Go Box and Ozzi, Vessel is tech-enabled, which facilitates real-time inventory management. It’s free for customers to use. The only time they’re charged is if they don’t return the cup, which they check out from a cafeteria or coffeehouse by scanning a QR code “like you might a library book,” says Dagny Tucker, who co-founded Vessel in 2014.

Tucker, who used to teach systems thinking at Parsons School of Design, homed in on the cup because it’s “one of the most highly visible signs of disposability.” Vessel’s impact, too, is purposefully visible. Each time you use one of its stainless-steel mugs, a cartoon dolphin leaping out of a rainbow appears on your phone to thank you and tell you how much water, CO2, and waste you’ve saved. Using a Vessel cup 24 times, Tucker says, scores an environmental “win” over a paper cup. Even better, it can alter behavior.

“We know, based on our research in New York City, that people who previously identified as not being sustainably minded rethought all their single-use disposable habits after using Vessel for three weeks,” Tucker says. “[There’s a] power in allowing people to see, ‘Oh, I am having an impact,’ because while collective action makes the big difference, you only get there through individual choices.”

Cities are fed up with plastic waste, too

Vessel has at least one prominent backer: the aforementioned Berkeley, which is currently piloting the service at its University of California campus and Telegraph Avenue area. The program stemmed from the passing of Berkeley’s Single-Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, the first phase of which went into effect in March. Starting January 1, 2020, vendors must charge 25 cents for every disposable cup provided.

The fee is meant to incentivize customers to bring their own cups and nudge vendors to shift to reusables, says Miriam Gordon, program director at Upstream Solutions, one of the environmental nonprofits that helped create the ordinance. The law mimics California’s single-use plastic bag ban, which she says has reduced plastic-bag litter in the state’s waterways and beaches by up to 80 percent.

“Social behavior research shows customers are much more likely to change their behavior to avoid added cost than in response to a discount or some kind of loyalty incentive program,” Gordon says. “That’s why the Berkeley ordinance mandated visible charges for the cups: The consumer has to see the charge.”

The Berkeley ordinance goes beyond cups, of course. As of now, any accessory disposable foodware items must be provided only upon request. By January, all disposable foodware items must be certified compostable. And in July, all plates, bowls, and cutlery for on-site dining must be reusable.

The city’s legislation is the first of its kind but similar bans on single-use plastics have since emerged elsewhere in the state. Several jurisdictions around the Bay Area are lining up to do the same, the most prominent of which is San Francisco, whose Single-Use Foodware Plastics, Toxics and Litter Reduction Ordinance, introduced in July, goes further by attaching an additional 25-cent charge to to-go food containers.

All of this, says Lee Hepner, legislative aide to Aaron Peskin, the San Francisco supervisor who shepherded the legislation, is designed to “foster a market for reusable manufacturers to step in” with innovative alternatives to the disposable model. A formal ordinance also signals to politicians they need to begin developing outreach and education materials, along with financing options to “help the industry evolve.”

Cities aren’t passing these ordinances just to score environmental brownie points. Even in the best circumstances, up to 60 percent of so-called “recyclable” plastics are completely unmarketable and only suitable for landfill, says Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, which handles curbside recycling for Berkeley and advocated for the ordinance.

Recycling is costly, too. Berkley currently shells out $75 for every ton of plastic waste it sends to southern California for optical sorting — an automated process that uses a combination of cameras and laser sensors to accept or reject objects — because “there are so many pieces and it’s so lightweight,” he says. It’s also for this reason around a third of all plastics escape collection. With the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board pushing for zero stormwater-borne trash in the bay by 2022, local jurisdictions are scrambling to spend millions on storm-drain capture devices. Servicing those drains, in turn, requires more taxpayer dollars.

Greening online delivery: possibility or pipe dream?

It will only be a matter of time before these ordinances trickle down to online delivery services. Perhaps in anticipation, Uber Eats recently introduced a new feature that requires customers to opt in to receive single-use items such as utensils and straws. (Drawer-of-shame owners, rejoice!) It’s the first delivery service to do this worldwide.

Outfits like Uber Eats are in a “unique place” because they don’t own the restaurants in their often diffuse networks, says Emilie Boman, head of public policy at Uber Eats. Neither do they prepare or package the foods they deliver. Yet promoting more mindful behavior could be as simple as changing the defaults on an interface. (Grubhub and DoorDash did not respond to requests for comment.)

“We looked at opt-in versus opt-out,” Boman says. “And we found that opt-in was far more successful [during trials] because it nudges people to do the right thing and only opt-in to something when they need it.”

Utensils are only a first step for Uber Eats; Boman says the company is looking to leverage its clout to help restaurants access more affordable eco-packaging. For vendors that adopt biodegradable foodware, it may provide benefits such as discounts from suppliers or a special seal that indicates their “greener” status.

Compostables can be iffy, according to experts. Just because something is compostable doesn’t guarantee it’ll actually be composted. Plastics made with corn starch or sugarcane and marketed as biodegradable require prolonged high temperatures under industrial conditions to break down, which means they’ll continue to clog up landfills, waterways, or streets if left to their own devices. Molded fiber bowls favored by fast-casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Sweetgreen may contain forever chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS, for short — that add to the toxic burden of the soils they’re meant to improve. All of which to say, reusables are still humanity’s best bet to rein in the chaos and tackle climate change.

For delivery services, the logistics of reusables are more difficult to wrangle, but not impossible. Before Seamless was a glint in someone’s eye, dabbawalas in India were delivering hundreds of thousands of home-cooked meals in metal tiffin carriers on foot or by bicycle. Whether this can be done at scale is the big question.

One thing that is indisputable is, sustainability-wise, durable reusables will always outperform disposables after a number of uses, says Gordon of Upstream Solutions. And in the long run, they’re cheaper for governments, consumers, food businesses, and just about everyone short of the fossil-fuels industry.

“For too long we have relied on the myth of recycling and increasingly on composting as a panacea for this problem,” she says. “But we need to recognize the problem is our addiction to the throwaway lifestyle. And that’s what needs to change.”

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