By: Jackie Li
From: Northwestern University
With the pandemic heightening people's tendencies to stay at home, the popularity of food delivery services, to no one's surprise, has skyrocketed over the past few years. As of May 2023, data gathering and visualization platform Statista projects that the online grocery delivery and meal delivery markets will eventually generate a whopping $182.90 billion and $86.91 in revenue for this year ("Online Food Delivery - United States"). Whether through removing the hassle of getting groceries or serving a piping hot meal right to your doorstep, these delivery services have arguably made things more convenient for everyone—with, perhaps, the exception of the environment.
From the get-go, this industry and its practices do not seem to exemplify sustainability at its finest. Notably, disposable, non-biodegradable plastic containers and carbon emissions as part of the delivery process are inextricable from ordering takeout. However, this obvious waste is only one perspective to this complicated, multi-faceted story, which begs the question: what are the costs and benefits of the food delivery industry? Are there unforeseen benefits of this industry that we could take advantage of? And, what are the steps that food delivery companies and consumers could take to make it more sustainable?
As an industry that relies heavily on vehicles to transport food from restaurant to consumer, the automobiles used in online food delivery contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Even outside of food delivery, transportation is infamous for the scale on which it pollutes the environment; according to the US EPA, the sector accounted for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 ("Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions | US EPA"). Additionally, Doordash, one of the largest delivery service providers in the country, employs over a million drivers (Curry, 2023). With only one company having so many cars out on the road to deliver food, one could only imagine the severity of pollution caused by the entire market—it is not something we should take lightly.
Yet, some claim that food delivery may not be all bad. In particular, the sustainability blog Ecobnb suggests that ordering food may be more sustainable than buying groceries for the equal, if not greater, amount of carbon emissions that might result from every household driving out to buy ingredients for themselves ("Food Delivery vs Sustainability: How Can You Contribute Today?", 2021). Either way, transportation is required to facilitate shopping for ingredients and ordering takeout, indicating that the priority is not which option omits more carbon emissions but how we can encourage society to pollute less.
Another factor of sustainability to consider is food waste, which the US has generated around “170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions” per year—this, in other words, is equivalent to the annual emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants (Bubsy, 2022). However, in some ways, the food delivery service might contribute to preventing and cutting down on this waste. When people decide to cook or buy ingredients, much goes to waste simply because they purchase more than enough. However, since most of the meals ordered online have already been pre-portioned, eating takeout makes it less likely for people to buy groceries that will end up unused in a landfill ("Food Delivery vs Sustainability: How Can You Contribute Today?", 2021).
However, the food industry’s contribution to the growing waste of single-use cutlery/containers is perhaps the most notable example of wastefulness. A 2019 Forbes article estimates that, in general, the US wastes around 40 billion individual plastic utensils each year (Tenenbaum, 2019). Moreover, plastic cutlery cannot be recycled easily; each piece is too small, lightweight, and contaminated to be reused for other purposes. Not to mention that many Asian restaurants also opt to give their customers disposable wooden chopsticks—a choice that causes nearly 20 million trees to be cut down in China, their country of manufacture, each year (Oon, 2022).
Yet, striving to be more sustainable as an individual may not have to come in the form of boycotting takeout entirely. After all, the food delivery industry has its merits; since its conception, its services have benefited both consumers and the restaurant industry. Platforms like Doordash and Ubereats have facilitated the expansion of small restaurants and their ability to reach out, advertise, and cater to audiences. On the flip side, these services have also enabled consumers, who tend to be busy young adults, to save time by not having to prepare meals from scratch. Additionally, case studies show that the industry can move towards more sustainable practices. Specifically, research done in China from 2019 to 2020 proves that by implementing small "nudges" in the UI/UX of delivery services, consumers can gradually adopt habits that reduce waste.
Within three target cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, the study directed third-party food delivery app Eleme by Alibaba to introduce design changes in the default options and preferences for cutlery, which increased their share of no-plastic-cutlery food orders by 648% (He et al., 2023). Eleme modified three details in particular to introduce the nudging. Firstly, the app would add a pop-up window asking consumers to specify how many sets of single-use cutlery they need. They set the default of this selection to zero. Secondly, they created a "green" point system that rewarded users by planting a tree in their name after accumulating 16,000 points. However, these "green nudges" were not foolproof and affected distinct demographics differently. Notably, they seemed to more effectively influence women, the middle-aged and elderly, and wealthy individuals and had trouble impacting consumers after longer periods of implementation. Yet despite these drawbacks, it has elicited behavior within customers that contrasted research that portrayed nudges as largely ineffective.
The study also makes sure to address the common concerns associated with nudges. Many have previously criticized the practice for being potentially manipulative for deliberately framing things to influence customer behavior and taking advantage of their ignorance or lack of awareness. However, the Eleme team created these “green nudges” to be entirely transparent in their intentions—specifically, since the nudge implemented was a pop-up that “required individuals to make explicit choices.” (He et al., 2023)
The other important takeaway was that these green nudges did not harm business. A possible drawback of creating a monetary incentive against single-use plastic is that it might cause people to forgo the delivery service in question. Nudges could have also provoked the same kind of response in consumers. However, the study noted that the total order amount remained constant across cities experiencing green nudging and those that did not (He et al., 2023). Statistics show that exogenous factors would have had to be responsible for the smaller declines in the consumer base over the years, which were declared negligible.
Similarly, there have been attempts in the U.S. to make the food delivery industry more sustainable. One example is DeliverZero, a third-party delivery service founded in New York City that packages its food in reusable clamshells. As an alternative to plastic containers, these reusable clamshells will be collected, washed, and redistributed to restaurants the next time a customer orders using the service. (Toussaint, 2021).
Launched in November 2019, the delivery service has since expanded to areas like Amsterdam, Chicago, and Colorado, where it has also largely been beneficial for the platform’s restaurant partners. In an interview with CNN, the owner of a Greek restaurant Spiro Hiotis commented that DeliverZero provided reusable boxes for free and charged a lower commission fee than some of its larger competitors (Chapman, 2021). Thus, the partnership was a win-win for him. Similarly, other projects like GO BOX in Oregon and Green-to-Go in North Carolina have created systems where takeout now inhabits a reusable box rather than a plastic one. While people outside of locations that offer these services may not get the “go green” with takeout just yet, it’s empowering to know that independent efforts on a smaller scale for sustainable packaging have begun to spread across the country and may perhaps influence the industry giants one day.
Currently, larger American food delivery services like Uber Eats and Doordash have yet to implement measures against the overindulgence of single-use utensils. However, it seems feasible and relatively low-cost for companies to practice sustainability. On the consumer end, mindfulness and awareness are the key; we must understand the gravity of our actions—no matter how small they may be—and hope to elicit change by focusing on what we can contribute to the big picture. If there’s food still left in the fridge, maybe don’t order out for tonight. What’s ten minutes extra of doing the dishes when you can cut down on disposable plates and utensils? Things may not seem convenient or to your preference right now, but these minimal changes in behavior will be worth it in the long run.
Buzby, Jean. “Food Waste and Its Links to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change.” USDA, 24 Jan. 2022, www.usda.gov/media/blog/2022/01/24/food-waste-and-its-links-greenhouse-gases-and-climate-change#:~:text=EPA%20estimated%20that%20each%20year,42%20coal%2Dfired%20power%20plants.
Chapman, Isabelle. “This Startup Aims to Take the Trash out of Takeout.” CNN Business, 22 Mar. 2022, www.cnn.com/2021/03/22/business/deliverzero-takeout-food-waste-startup/index.html.
Curry, David. “Food Delivery App Revenue and Usage Statistics (2023).” Business of Apps, 24 May 2023, www.businessofapps.com/data/food-delivery-app-market/.
“Food Delivery vs. Sustainability: How Can You Contribute Today?” Ecobnb, Ecobnb, 27 Jan. 2021, ecobnb.com/blog/2021/01/food-delivery-sustainability-how-contribute/.
He, Guojun et al. ,Reducing single-use cutlery with green nudges: Evidence from China’s food-delivery industry.Science381,eadd9884(2023). DOI:10.1126/science.add9884
"Online Food Delivery - United States." Statista, Statista Inc., https://www.statista.com/outlook/dmo/online-food-delivery/united-states?currency=usd
Oon, Samanta. “The Environmental Impact of Disposable Chopsticks.” FoodUnfolded, 9 June 2022, www.foodunfolded.com/article/the-environmental-impact-of-disposable-chopsticks#:~:text=If%20you’ve%20ever%20broken,poplar%2C%20spruce%20and%20cotton%20wood.
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Tenenbaum, Laura. “Plastic Cutlery Is Terrible for the Environment and We Don’t Need To Have It Delivered.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 16 July 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/lauratenenbaum/2019/07/16/plastic-cutlery-is-terrible-for-the-environment-and-we-dont-need-to-have-it-delivered/?sh=62263bb64019.
Toussaint, Kristin. “This New Delivery Service Cuts down on Takeout Waste by Sending Your Food in Reusable Packaging.” Fast Company, 7 Jan. 2021, www.fastcompany.com/90591190/this-new-delivery-service-cuts-down-on-takeout-waste-by-sending-your-food-in-reusable-packaging.