Zomato, Swiggy and food delivery in the age of plastics

Deep in the recesses of GPRA Complex, New Moti Bagh—an upscale, gated colony for civil servants—lies a sewage treatment and waste management plant. This is Delhi’s first zero-waste area, run by Green Planet Waste Management (GPWM).

Smack dab between GPWM’s wastewater treatment and composting centers is a shed where non-recyclable plastic herded from GPRA Complex is turned to oil. This is done through a process called pyrolysis. It’s where the dankest plastic goes to die: milk packets, water bottle labels, torn, oil-stained styrofoam, and dust-laden carry bags.

About 10% of the daily 50-odd kilos of plastic fed to this pyrolysis plant are disposable trays, food pouches, and cutlery, the kind Rajesh Mittal has seen more of in recent years thanks to food delivery.

Unmarried Demographic

“It’s only around 10% here because this is a high-end colony and every household has a cook,” says a bespectacled Mittal, GPWM’s managing director. “You’ll see more food containers in places like Noida, or places with a relatively higher younger, unmarried demographic. The kind of plastic generated varies from area to area and the local demographic.”

You probably know this now: we’re living in what environmentalists dub ‘The Plasticene’ (Age of plastic). Plastic, relative to metal and paper, is a young material, first finding form as Bakelite in 1907 and gaining ground because of the exigencies of war. Its affordability, portability, and disposability, once our boons are now banes bar none. As of 2017, the world produced 350 million tonnes of plastic (excluding PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate—reusable packaging mostly for liquids).

And in an increasingly-tired world, where longer working hours marry technology and birth convenience, food containers are the new delinquents. As per a 2018 study published in the science journal Elsevier, door-to-door food delivery in China accounted for a nearly-eightfold jump in packaging waste in just two years, from 0.2 million tonnes (2015) to 1.5 million tonnes (2017). Closer home, in India, we don’t know how much plastic we generate. That’s because the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) underreports such data. But we can hazard some guesses with food delivery.

In October 2018, restaurant discovery and food delivery service Zomato claimed to fulfill 23 million monthly food orders. Its rival Swiggy, which does not disclose monthly order numbers, is believed to fulfill up to 28 million orders as of March 2019. This amounts to thousands and thousands of tonnes of food containers and cutlery waste, at the least.

Bans on single-use plastics

Small wonder then that Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bengaluru’s civic body, wants to ban plastic food containers. Bans on single-use plastics in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, are ineffectual due to inconsistent implementation. In a bid to seem self-aware, Zomato introduced an opt-out feature for customers to avoid plastic cutlery. Swiggy, on the other hand, put the ball in the court of restaurants with its Swiggy Packaging Assist (SPA) platform, which aims to offer more eco-friendly packaging options.

For all its cheapness, plastic is a complex material. To understand how culpable food delivery is or isn’t in its propagation, we need to enter the proverbial ant farm to observe how aggregation, customer ratings, policy blindness, waste monetization, and plastic coloring come together to create an endless maze of muck.

Sit tight

Launched in September 2018, SPA is a marketplace where restaurants can bulk-buy food containers, cutlery, and bags. At the time, the media pegged it as a move to encourage sustainable packaging, including trays made from bagasse and corn starch. Eateries buying eco-friendly or recyclable items from vendors on SPA get a 5% discount on these purchases. Virtuosity in itself needn’t be questioned. But gilded virtuosity should. And that’s because plastic containers and trays are not just available, but more visible on SPA.

SPA is available in seven of 200 cities Swiggy operates in, meaning any eco-friendly benefits are considerably limited in geographic scope. The argument can be made that packaging vendors may not be present in all 44 cities to facilitate SPAs mission. Also, it makes business sense to focus on metros. But this brings another hiccup to the fore: price.


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