Asia Life

Cutting Chopsticks From China’s Food Delivery Waste

China’s food delivery industry is searching for ways to make the sector more environmentally conscious, one order at a time.

Layne Vandenberg
Cutting Chopsticks From China’s Food Delivery Waste
Credit: Pixabay

Beijing is increasingly engaging with international “hackathon” culture, particularly around energy and environmental solutions. The 2018 Cleantech Hackathon, held in Beijing, aimed to engage both Chinese and foreign attendees to design and pitch solutions to key energy, environment, and transport challenges facing China. Half the participants competed to solve a circular economy challenge involving food delivery, and the other half tried to solve a transportation challenge about bike-sharing. Each challenge was accompanied by a panel of judges and consultants representing relevant business models in each space, including Mobike for bike-sharing and Meituan Waimai for food delivery. Each team’s solution was judged according to five criteria: feasibility, sustainability, originality, scalability, and applicability.

Carl Hooks, Lisa Laeven, Tobi Du, and Veronika Spurna, all Yenching Scholars at the Yenching Academy at Peking University, attended the 2018 Cleantech Hackathon after hearing about the competition on the Beijing Energy Network (BEN) WeChat group. Their group decided to focus on the circular economy challenge with a specific focus on recycling and delivery/e-commerce waste issues after already beginning to look into these issues in their dormitories on Peking University’s campus.

Food delivery in China, commonly known as “waimai,” is “overwhelmingly large,” as described by Spurna. “Food delivery in China goes beyond restaurant food — it is common to order your daily coffee, bubble tea, fruit, vegetables, bread, you name it. It is so fast and convenient that it is not uncommon to come across people who mainly live off food ordered through delivery apps.”

The industry is led by applications such as Ele.me, Meituan, and Baidu Waimai, and has “grown explosively in recent years,” says Du. As a result, “Regular people are only just becoming aware of waste issues such as recycling, let alone the massive amount of waste generated by food delivery.” In 2017, a Global Times survey showed that 70 percent of respondents were unaware of environmental issues in food delivery.

Concerns around food delivery waste, however, have existed since at least the early 2010s in China. In 2013, the chairman of Jilin Forestry Industry Group proposed a 5 percent tax on disposable chopsticks at the National People’s Congress, stating, “We must change our consumption habits and encourage people to carry their own tableware.”

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Failed attempts by several food delivery businesses have also led to criticism of their negative environmental impact. Meituan Waimai, the company with 46 percent of the food delivery market share and one of the food delivery companies present at the hackathon, has faced legal action for the amount of waste produced by its disposable dinnerware. Such criticism is not unfounded. In 2017, Meituan Waimai orders nationwide used approximately 20 million pairs of disposable chopsticks, or 350 metric tons of waste, per day.

Disposable chopsticks themselves pose a large problem to making Chinese food delivery sustainable. Disposable chopsticks are not essential to many who order food delivery. Many people who order delivery to their homes or workplaces already have reusable utensils, but plastic and wooden utensils are included with orders nonetheless. China manufactures 57-80 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks per year, fueling deforestation in a country where only an estimated 3.34 percent of the country’s forests remain intact. The Chinese government has ran afforestation campaigns in recent years to address these concerns; however, Laeven and Spurna discovered the ineffectiveness of these projects while working on an afforestation project in the Kubuqi desert in Inner Mongolia. As Laeven describes, “Focusing on afforestation but neglecting the enormous demand and use of wooden utensils seems quite contradictory.” The solution has to lie with the source.

After reviewing the hackathon topics, Hooks, Laeven, Du, and Spurna chose to focus on Meituan Waimai to improve the sustainability of their services and business model. However, after extensive discussions with a Meituan representative, Spurna says, “We realized that there is very little they can or are willing to do. Meituan has little say over the materials restaurants choose to use and restaurants in turn pay a high commission to food delivery apps resulting into a lack of incentives to invest into more sustainable materials as plastic comes cheap.”

The team proposed a “next-generation” Meituan Waimai that aimed to address several major pain points at once: “public pressure, the real/measurable environmental harms from disposable utensils, and costs to restaurant owners. This included the cost of disposable utensils in hundreds upon hundreds of orders that add up over time. Our estimate placed it at 1.4 million RMB [about $202,599] spent per day by restaurants across the country.”

The team’s primary proposal to the Meituan Waimai app was simple: “The default checkout screen for any order would no longer include utensils. Now, users would have to toggle a button to request utensils with their order. Doing so would trigger a price increase and pop-up notification with an environmental warning message.” Eliminating disposable utensils from the traditional checkout “seemed like low-hanging fruit for environmental impact that are also innocuous enough that removing them would not upset users or hurt sales,” says Hooks.

Just days after the hackathon, Meituan adopt a simplified version of their solution: orders no longer come with cutlery unless specifically requested. The team immediately noticed the solution in their own use of the app, as Spurna describes: “I have barely ever received utensils since. When I did, I wrote a complaint in the restaurant’s reviews section where they immediately replied promising not to add utensils again. This is one of the signs that environmental sustainability is becoming a desirable part of a brand.”

Meituan’s competitors in the food delivery space are now also taking steps toward more environmentally conscious practices. As Spurna notes:

Once Meituan launched our proposal, other apps such as Ele.me instantly adopted exactly the same solution. However, I am not aware of apps pushing for more sustainable solutions — food deliveries still come with layers of unnecessary plastic. In recent months we have noticed that some restaurants started using more sustainable materials for food containers, namely paper. However, it is very common to get a paper box full of small plastic containers. There is still a lack of practical environmental awareness despite a slight shift in attitudes.

These efforts made by Chinese companies to solve issues of wasteful usage of resources perhaps more broadly reflect the lack of responsibility taken by the Chinese government and consumers. “The private sector does not want to entirely take responsibility to solve this issue,” says Laeven. “Meituan is only providing a platform to connect customers with restaurants and that they can’t take control of the packaging of the food as much as they wish. It’s therefore also the responsibility of the customer and the restaurants themselves.”

Without the support of government and consumers, these company-led shifts remain strategies for brand recognition and may not result in the long-term development of a environmentally conscious food delivery sector. As Du explains, “The food delivery market is fiercely competitive so any advantage like being able to advertise that your company is environmentally sustainable is desirable. It’s unfortunate that sustainability has to be commodifiable in today’s world but we have to work with the reality of the situation.”

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To learn more about their experience at the Clean Energy Hackathon or about their proposal to limiting food delivery waste, please contact Carl Hooks, Lisa Laeven, Tobi Du, and Veronika Spurna via their respective LinkedIn profiles.