Climate cost of home delivered food

22nd January 2021 | Robert Crawford

Over the past few years, Australians have whole-heartedly embraced online food delivery services like UberEats, Deliveroo and Menulog. But home-delivered food comes with a climate cost, and single-use packaging is one of the biggest contributors. Robert Crawford, Associate Professor in Construction and Environmental Assessment at the University of Melbourne, finds out which cuisine is the worst climate culprit.

Our research found Australians placed 27 million online food orders in 2018. By 2024, this number is projected to grow to 65 million. The increasing use of food packaging for online meal deliveries is making the sector’s already massive carbon footprint even larger.

Last year, COVID-19 lockdowns led to a 20 percent increase in household solid wastes, due in part to increased food deliveries. The climate crisis and problems facing Australia’s waste management sector mean we must urgently reduce waste from meals ordered online.

Home-delivery options have exploded, and more people are signing up every day.

A growing problem

Technology, income and lifestyle changes mean fewer people are cooking at home or dining out, and more are having food delivered to their door. According to business data platform Statista, 9.4 million Australians are now registered users of online food delivery services.

Most online food deliveries require single-use packaging. Producing, transporting and disposing of this packaging uses large quantities of energy and raw materials. These materials release emissions as they break down in landfill or are burned.

Our research found that in 2018, the disposal of single-use packaging from online food orders in Australia led to 5600 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2-e) emissions. The sector is growing by more than 15 percent each year, which means these packaging emissions will reach 13,200 tonnes of CO2-e in 2024.

Packaging that requires huge amounts of resources to produce is used once, then thrown away.

Emissions by cuisine

Our study quantified how much greenhouse gas is emitted over the life of food packaging used in online food delivery. Specifically, we examined five popular cuisine types: pizza, burgers, Indian, Thai and Chinese. The typical meal from each restaurant was determined, and the packaging assessed. The results, from lowest to highest, are presented below, in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e):

• Chinese: 0.16kg CO2-e for a plastic container and plastic bag

• Indian: 0.18 kg CO2-e for a plastic container, paper bag and cling film

• Pizza: 0.20g CO2-e for a cardboard box

• Thai: 0.23 kg CO2-e for a plastic container and paper bag

• Burger meal: 0.29 kg CO2-e for a paper bag, paper boxes, plastic straw, liquid paperboard cup with plastic lid and cardboard cup holder.

Of the five cuisines we examined, packaging from burger meals was responsible for the most emissions, followed by Thai meals. Obviously, the exact packaging used varies according to the specific food order, restaurant and customer preferences, and individual meals may have a carbon footprint higher or lower than average for that cuisine.

We also found a brown paper delivery bag produces far more emissions than a plastic bag, due to the carbon released when it breaks down. However plastic bags generally create more litter and are more toxic to the environment than paper bags.

The study found a burger meal to be the worst for packaging-related emissions.

Worst packaging culprits

Our study found the production of the raw materials used in packaging – that is, fuels for plastic and wood pulp for paper and cardboard – contributes more than 50 percent of the total packaging emissions. Converting the raw materials into packaging products is the next highest contributor, at between 32 and 48 percent.

Replacing virgin raw materials with recycled content can reduce production emissions, but only by about 10 percent, due to the energy required in the recycling process. So reducing packaging use is more important than increasing the recycled content of materials.

We also found the packaging disposal method can dramatically influence emissions. We assumed typical recycling rates of between 18 and 77 percent. Bu, if all packaging is sent to landfill, disposal-related emissions may increase by up to 15 times.

Paper-based packaging had the greatest disposal emissions due to its high carbon content. If all packaging materials are incinerated, then disposal emissions can be up to 49 times higher than the typical disposal scenario.

Plastics produce the least emissions when disposed in landfill as opposed to recycling or incineration. And organic material such as paper and paperboard produce more emissions when disposed to landfill than if they’re recycled or incinerated. So a material-specific approach to waste disposal and processing is important.

Organic packaging options, while often considered the better choice, are still emission-intensive.

The way forward

The task of reducing single-use packaging has been made more urgent by new federal laws banning the export of unprocessed waste from Australia. Increasing and improving waste recovery and processing infrastructure will help divert waste from landfill. However, packaging production – with both virgin and recycled raw materials – is very emissions-intensive. So producing less packaging in the first place is key to emissions reduction.

Online food delivery service providers should make it easier for customers to opt out of certain packaging products, such as bags and single-use utensils. Investment in more environmentally-friendly packaging options is also crucial.

Customers have a role to play here, too, and consumer awareness and education campaigns will be important moving forward. Refusing packaging where possible or choosing more eco-friendly options will also help to reduce single-use packaging emissions.

This article draws on research by former University of Melbourne masters student Indumathi Arunan. It was written by Robert Crawford, Associate Professor in Construction and Environmental Assessment at the University of Melbourne, and was originally published by The Conversation.