Takeaway culture and plastic pollution

Everyone likes treating themselves once in a while with delectable food and once food delivery services like Zomato and Swiggy became big names then home delivery culture became more common than not. Similarly, the consumption of takeaway food is increasing worldwide. Without a doubt, since the coronavirus pandemic changed everyone’s definition of normal, the delivery and takeaway culture has only seen a rise. However, with increasing comfort in our dining experiences, a growing concern about plastic pollution has been looming around us.

Consumers and restaurants have become more dependent on single-use plastic bags, containers and utensils due to health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, before the start of the outbreak, cities and states were making some progress on banning plastic bags, but now cities and states have delayed or rolled back those bans on plastic bags in fear that reusable products will spread disease. Single-use containers used for takeaway food represent a significant source of waste and environmental impacts due to their low recyclability.

This is a major setback in the fight against plastic pollution, which is projected to increase by 40% in the next decade. Many restaurants are not limiting the amount of plastic involved in takeout orders. For instance, popular chain Just Salad was producing reusable bowls that saved more than 75,000 pounds of plastic a year but since the start of the pandemic, they immediately halted the program. Similarly, Starbucks and Dunkin’ also stopped letting customers use reusable mugs.

Most local economies don’t have the infrastructure for reusable or compostable takeout packaging and this opportunity to exploit COVID-19 fears has been seized by the plastic industry to thrive. A major challenge will be reinstating zero waste policies when the pandemic finally subsides, though there is opportunity for delivery services to establish themselves as zero waste options and develop returnable or reusable systems.

While restaurants should to try to find better solutions than single-use plastics — like using disposable packaging made with high post-consumer waste —they can look to make changes elsewhere to mitigate the environmental cost of business.

Up until recently, the least bad option for takeaway containers was aluminium foil tray. The trouble is, even though aluminium is endlessly recyclable the trays themselves aren’t usually made from recycled material. Some solutions, other than the obvious paper and cardboard, have included bamboo, plant starches, bagasse, hemp, wheat straw and banana leaves, but something sturdy enough to withstand food but not so sturdy that it won’t break down in environment is needed. Several manufacturers and retailers now claim to offer these options, but some are made from unsustainable source materials.

An option is edible cutlery. Bakeys, an Indian company, makes sturdy, biscuit-like spoons, forks and chopsticks which can either be eaten during your meal or, if uneaten, will decompose in a few days. Reusing is always an option but maybe not so feasible when people are scared because of the virus. However, carrying one’s own refillable water bottles and coffee mugs, to help reduce the number of disposable bottles and cups being used is not so bad, especially if there’s an incentive that restaurants will give some discount for such customers. However, there’s a problem of size for the sake of fairness as well as profit margins but it can be solved with measuring devices. Product manufacturers should be looking at designing the most appealing, durable, safe and resource-efficient reusable containers possible and work with plastic recycling processors.

Some of these actions can be taken immediately, some will be gradual and it might take time for some manufacturers to develop more sustainable products. But takeaway culture is not a lost cause yet, if we just remember to do our bit.

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