Trash Talk: India's Food Delivery Sector Rallies to Combat Packaging Pollution
Trash Talk: India's Food Delivery Sector Rallies to Combat Packaging Pollution

According to latest reports, two-thirds of Indian adults now prefer ordering, takeout from restaurants compared to pre-pandemic times. Even as the country returns to normalcy, the demand for restaurant delivery continues to grow. The convenience of food delivery has transformed the food industry in India. With just a few taps on a mobile app, people can order their favorite dishes from their favorite restaurants and have them delivered to their doorstep. However, this convenience comes at a cost that is often overlooked: the massive amounts of trash generated by food delivery.

Every time a food delivery order is placed, it comes with a variety of packaging materials, including plastic containers, utensils, and bags. These items are typically used for a very short period and then discarded, often ending up in landfills, water bodies, and other public spaces. This has become a major environmental issue in many parts of the country.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that most of this waste is not biodegradable and can take hundreds of years to decompose. This means that the trash generated by food delivery today will continue to impact the environment for generations to come. In addition to the environmental impact, the trash generated by food delivery also poses a significant public health risk, as it attracts pests and vermin that can spread disease.

The surge in delivery and takeaway orders has led to a significant increase in plastic waste, with a substantial portion of it coming from packaging materials. The issue of plastic pollution is a pressing concern for India as well, and there is a growing national movement to address the excessive use of single-use plastics and disposables in the restaurant industry. At both the federal and local legislative levels, efforts are being made to promote more sustainable practices.

Taking a cue from global initiatives, India has also set its sights on reducing the usage of fossil fuel-based plastics and replacing them with biodegradable alternatives. The government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aims to achieve a 90 percent reduction in fossil fuel-based plastics within the next two decades. To support this goal, an executive order was passed to prioritize environmental justice, including measures to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.

Numerous restaurants in India, both big and small, have already taken proactive steps to eliminate harmful plastics from their operations. However, making transition does not comes without challenges, as finding the right partners, insurance coverage, and ensuring cost-competitiveness took considerable effort.

Food delivery platforms can also play a role in reducing waste by partnering with restaurants that use eco-friendly packaging and by incentivizing customers to opt for less packaging. They can also explore the use of reusable packaging materials or introduce a deposit system for packaging that is returned after use.

The available solutions

“To this end, we introduced Infinity Box – a reusable food container that is both #environmentallyfriendly -friendly and cost-effective. These containers can be used over 200 times, making them the most sustainable packaging option for food in India. Using Infinity Box is not only good for the environment, but also for your wallet, as it costs no extra money to opt for this sustainable packaging option,” founder, Keshav Godala mentioned.

While offering recyclable and compostable packaging has been an ongoing practice in Indian restaurants for several years, there is now a push to move beyond this commendable effort and completely eliminate single-use packaging. In India, the push for sustainable food delivery is gaining momentum, with several companies actively working to address environmental concerns related to packaging. 

Yash Pakka, for instance, has launched an innovative initiative called Chuk, offering 100 percent compostable food packaging containers. These containers are already being used by renowned brands like Haldiram's, Bikanervala, and Chai Point. Not only are they spill-proof and come with snug-fit lids, but they also present a formidable alternative to plastic containers. Additionally, Chuk containers are microwaveable and freezer-friendly, making them convenient for consumers. Yash Pakka ensures these containers are entirely toxin-free, further promoting health and sustainability.

Another notable brand contributing to sustainable food delivery is Pot Pot Yum Yum, specializing in serving North Indian and Coastal Cuisine, along with popular street food like chaat in pots and potlis. Their delivery range incorporates eco-friendly options, such as cardboard boxes, terracotta, and glass containers, as well as paper bags. These choices not only reduce plastic waste but also provide customers with greener alternatives for their orders.

Restaurants’ turn eco-friendly 

Madam Curry, a newly established delivery house, has taken significant strides in adopting sustainable practices by utilizing glass jars in addition to earthenware and birchwood cutlery - all of which are reusable. Glass containers are considered an excellent replacement for plastic due to their eco-friendliness and safety. However, the potential issue of an overflow of glass containers for regular customers may act as a deterrent, calling for a need to strike a balance between sustainability and practicality.

Despite these challenges, some companies have embraced sustainable packaging solutions. For instance, Indian tea retail company Chai Point collaborated with India-based sustainable food packaging company Ecoware in 2016 to develop 100 percent biodegradable packaging made of bagasse. While Chai Point's paper cups remain non-biodegradable, their containers, spoons, and sticks are eco-friendly.

Looking at the future, Chai Point's founder, Amuleek Singh Bijral, shares exciting plans to explore even more sustainable options, including using pineapple waste as a container, which would not only prolong the shelf life of the products but also present a truly eco-friendly solution. India has also seen some prominent restaurant chains like Burger King and Starbucks reusable packaging pilots. However, experts argue that it is time to expand these programs beyond small-scale tests and make them a more mainstream option.

In a proactive move to tackle the environmental impact of plastic waste, the authorities in Mumbai have set their sights on curbing the use of plastic boxes and containers for food deliveries, following the successful nationwide ban on single-use plastics. In a recent meeting with restaurant bodies, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) proposed the adoption of steel containers as an alternative. This phase II initiative aims to build on the city's efforts to fight plastics and promote eco-friendly practices.

The Challenges 

Some restaurant owners, like Pradeep Shetty, the senior vice president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India (HRAWI), express concerns about the feasibility of using steel containers. They believe that steel containers are impractical and would significantly increase delivery costs. Shetty points out that the challenge lies in catering to the already-demanding customer base, which expects speedy services like 10-minute deliveries.

The major hurdle faced by the restaurant industry is the cost and limited availability of eco-friendly options. While bagasse, made from sugarcane residue, is a relatively affordable option at INR 3,000 a tonne or  INR 3 per kilogram, other eco-friendly alternatives like reusable glass containers, bamboo, or edible cutlery come at much higher costs compared to plastic, which costs  INR 15-18 per kilogram, according to a report published in Business Insider.

Another significant challenge faced by Indian restaurants and consumers in adopting reusable is the lack of standardization across different reusable programs. This results in varying investment costs for operators, making it harder to mandate or encourage widespread participation. Experts stress the importance of creating a universal system to streamline the adoption of reusable, much like the standardized plug system for electric cars. Government intervention might be necessary to facilitate the integration of reusable into daily habits.

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