10 November 2020

As more and more people get into the habit of having hot food delivered to their homes, experts at the University of Edinburgh Business School are highlighting how a shift to returnable containers, carrier bags and cutlery would help tackle takeaway food’s climate impact.
Returnable and reusable container

A research team including our colleague Xi Liang of the Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability [1], looked at the rapid growth in the takeaway market in China, which by 2018 was serving over 400 million customers with 10 billion orders, generating 323 kilotonnes of tableware and packaging waste. [2]

By analysing city-level takeaway order data, the team calculated the impact of replacing the usual takeaway food packaging with returnable packaging. This would reduce waste generation by up to 92 per cent, and environmental emissions and water consumption by more than two-thirds.

Sharing packaging mechanisms can not only accelerate the transition to a zero-waste takeaway future, but also be promoted to the retail, catering, and logistics industries to create a zero-waste society.

Xi Liang describes the shared tableware set:

“The returnable tableware we used in one scenario included a silicone container, a high-density polyethylene nonwoven bag and cutlery comprising a reusable silicone spoon, a pair of reusable wooden chopsticks, a recycled napkin and a wooden toothpick and its recycled wrapper. The food container is also designed with dual compartments, which can be used to store both staple food such as rice and other food such as a main dish or side dish, thereby reducing the amount of packaging by half.”

Ya Zhou, the first author of this study and an associated professor at Guangdong University of Technology, explains how they would be collected and cleaned:

“Two different take-back mechanisms and cleaning methods were considered. The first was a centralised collection with manual washing. Tableware was collected at the next delivery and taken back to the restaurant in which the courier picks up a new takeaway order. The other method was decentralised collection with machine washing. Consumers return the tableware to collection points from where it is delivered to central cleaning stations by diesel truck. The cleaning stations equipped with commercial dishwashers are responsible for cleaning and disinfection of tableware and taking it back to the restaurant.”

Dabo Guan, the corresponding author of this study, a professor at Tsinghua University, explains how reducing packaging waste helps reduce the emissions that cause climate change:

“Single-use food containers, spoons, and plastic bags have higher environmental impacts – 60 per cent on average - compared with other takeaway packaging. The resin production of fossil fuel-based plastics is a major source of CO2 emissions, as is incineration of plastic packaging. Reuse tableware and packaging could largely reduce the production, packaging, transportation, and disposal of single-use packaging from the source and help reduce life-cycle CO2 emission and water consumption.”

Zhou explains the impact on consumers would be minimal:

“One restaurant in Beijing already delivers takeaway food by reusable ceramic tableware for free, with the items collected by courier and washed by hand in the restaurant. If consumers return the tableware to collection points, a deposit would be returned and usage fees would be charged. According to a reusable service company in Guangzhou, the deposit per reusable item is 15 Chinese yuan - less than £2 - and the usage fee would not exceed 2 Chinese yuan - 20 pence - close to what single-use packaging costs anyway.”

The research comes as governments consider how to tackle plastic waste and move to a circular economy. In Scotland, the proposed Circular Economy Bill is not being progressed due to the Covid crisis. Liang hopes his research renews interest in the issue:

“Schemes could be put forward by the government to ban single-use plastics packaging and support the adoption and collection of sharing tableware. China has strived to crack new solutions for municipal waste management and plastic reduction, setting a good example for other countries, such as the waste sorting system for major cities proposed in March 2017, the zero-waste city pilot project in January 2019, and a nationwide single-use plastic ban in January 2020.”

The implications for cities in the UK and around the world are clear, says Zhou:

“The global food delivery industry has been booming. With the rise of digital technology, how we eat is changing fast as online food-delivery platforms race to capture markets and customers across the whole world. The proposed sharing tableware mechanism can serve as a feasible solution for reducing food delivery packaging waste that many cities around the globe struggle with, and help integrated policymaking for the sustainable development of the takeaway industry. More importantly, sharing packaging mechanisms can not only accelerate the transition to a zero-waste takeaway future, but also be promoted to the retail, catering, and logistics industries to create a zero-waste society.”