Food Delivery and Takeaway vs Sustainability—What Can Be Done?
Times are undoubtedly tough on Hong Kong’s F&B scene right now, and those of us with the privilege of enjoying our time at home are finding ourselves with a very first-world dilemma—while we want to support our favourite restaurants by ordering take-out, transporting food creates inordinate amounts of waste.
While it seems superfluous to be discussing environmental concerns while a deadly pandemic sweeps across the world, remember that zoonotic outbreaks are the result of our interaction with the environment. Hong Kong’s landfills are full to the extent that the government is expected to begin exhuming human remains next year in order to make space for our rubbish. Now is the time to be more conscious of our footprint on Earth, not less.
If you’re picking up your own takeaway, reducing packaging waste is relatively easy—simply bring your own reusable containers. Start with what you already have at home instead of going out to buy new ones. Make sure they’re spotless and dry before you head to the restaurant, and check with the restaurant in advance that they’re accepting reusables.
Things get more complicated when ordering in. Unlike places such as Singapore or the United States, Hong Kong has yet to have an established network of reusables that can be rented and returned. At the moment, single-use containers are our only option. While some restaurants are using containers made from home compostable, commercially compostable, biodegradable, or “plant-based” materials, it should be noted that at the moment in Hong Kong, it is near-impossible for a regular diner to dispose of any of this packaging responsibly—distributors of these products do not have any downstream processes in place to ensure their proper collection and processing. As a result, most of these containers are thrown out with general waste, and sit in landfill just the same.
Without the right conditions (such as exposure to specific amounts of oxygen and heat), usually provided by specialist machinery, these single-use items are incapable of breaking down as promised. Worse still, as there is currently no legislation around the labelling of these materials, some products marketed as “degradable” might break down into microplastics, which end up polluting our waterways and entering our bodies through drinking water. Many “bioplastics” are not biodegradable at all. A study by the University of Newcastle, Australia estimates that we each ingest about a credit card’s worth of plastic on a weekly basis. We also need to consider that farming the materials (such as corn, beets, sugarcane) used to make these containers could well be contributing to the destruction of forests and monoculture farming, has a raft of environmental consequences, including driving out wildlife (a key factor in zoonotic diseases).
The only exceptions are certified home compostable products, plain, uncoated cardboard, and natural materials (such as unadulterated bamboo leaves), often used in Asian traditions, which can be processed if you have access to a compost heap. (If you have the capacity to do this and want to get started, groups such as Hong Kong Community Composting have some useful resources).
Whether you’re picking up or ordering a delivery, remember to refuse anything you already have at home, such as napkins and cutlery. If you’re using a delivery app, ensure that that the option for cutlery is unchecked, and consider reminding the restaurant with a short note in the notes section. After your meal, try to clean and reuse these “single-use” items.
A recent report by over 100 scientists worldwide deemed reusables to be just as safe as disposable items. This time of incredible change is an opportunity to venture beyond existing frameworks. If you run a F&B business, consider a policy regarding reusables that encompasses staff and customer safety, as well as reducing landfill, such as allowing a customer’s clean reusables for pick-ups, or providing reusable containers through your own deposit or credit system. Hopefully in the future, we can look forward to third-party reusables providers. Organisations such as Food Made Good can provide insight and support on changes like these.
As the saying goes, it takes two to tango—as diners, we should also question our throwaway culture and consider the real cost of convenience, and make it easy for our favourite restaurants to transition into less wasteful solutions.
Disposal of single-use containers is just the tip of the iceberg, albeit an urgent one for Hong Kong. Decreasing one’s adverse impact on the environment during the pandemic (and beyond) can also come from choosing to eat more plants, doing packaging-free grocery runs, reducing food waste (and processing it via services such as Hong Kong Community Composting; for commercial operations, the government’s Organic Resources Recovery Centre), and refusing and reusing everything even before thinking about recycling and rubbish.
The pandemic has brought on unthinkable challenges and laid bare existing issues all across society. Fighting our way out of it will not be easy, but if we lean into the creativity and resilience for which Hongkongers are known, we might emerge from this more future-proof than ever.
Janice Leung Hayes is an independent food writer and social entrepreneur with a deep love of food—its sources, makers, sellers, and eaters. Under her food sustainability platform Honestly Green, she launched a food-focused farmers market, Tong Chong Street Market, co-presented with Swire Properties.