The first part of this blog series focused on the experiment design, technical aspects and preliminary results of our #GoEco collaboration with a local food delivery company, GoTeddy. This part focuses on the challenges encountered in the shift to eco-safe food delivery options, the lessons learned from the experiment and the prerequisite elements for this plastic waste reduction model to work.
A few challenges and barriers to change
1. Plastic is the more convenient and cheaper way to package food deliveries
During the experiment, it was found that restaurant partners and their staff tended to overlook the app notification requesting non-plastic packaging, especially during peak hours. This affected the customer experience, prompting them to comment that “some orders with Eco-Safe option were delivered in plastic packaging and delivery was delayed”. Even if alternative packaging was made available to the participating establishments, they still used plastic in some cases because they might have been pressed for time during peak hours to make the differentiation. In addition, the paper boxes, bowls and cups were not suitable for some orders as fresh meat, fresh vegetable, sukiyaki, papaya salad, spicy salad, sauce, and noodle soup. Restaurants need a variety of packaging to suit their size and food safety requirements and this is why they resort to single-use plastic.
According to one café owner, “cups and lids for cold drinks, for example, made from biodegradable plastic PBS (Polybutylene succinate) or biodegradable plastic PLA (Polylactic acid) cannot be decomposed naturally, and they have to be stored properly in a room with the right temperature”. This adds to the “inconvenience” of using alternatives to plastic. Furthermore, there is no existing system to recycle glass or segregate glass for waste collection, which makes the café owner think that “PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the best solution as there are people who buy this plastic type”. To read about potential negative impacts of “biodegradable” plastic, click here.
In terms of cost, 50% of restaurants considered the price of Eco-Safe packaging affordable while the other 50% found some items to be cheaper and some more expensive but overall they considered plastics as the much cheaper option.
2. There are varying levels of understanding and appreciation among the stakeholders
In most restaurants and cafes, staff work in shifts and keep rotating. Not all staff were trained to use the new in app features and to handle the packing of orders as per customer’s preference. There was no checking at the next stage of the process either. The delivery riders did not pay attention to whether the orders had been packed properly, which clearly indicated the need for more training and closer monitoring in order to effect the desired behavioural change among stakeholders.
3. Customers prefer the Eco-Safe option only if there are no extra costs
In this experiment, customers could use the Eco-Safe option without paying anything extra. Through a post experiment survey, their tolerance or willingness to pay for eco-friendly packaging was examined.
Of the 54 respondents, more than half earn between 2,500,000 and 5,000,000 LAK ($250-500) on average. 69% of them are not willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging, while the rest are willing to pay an additional 1000-5000 LAK ($0.10-0.50) for eco-friendly packaging. 100% of respondents said they would like the Eco-Safe option to remain in the GoTeddy App. These results show that there is a high demand from customers which should encourage restaurant owners and businesses to consider the opportunity and consumer health.
Figure 1: A consumer posted on social media complaining about food delivered in a Styrofoam-social media scanning before launching the experiment
The Way Forward: Scaling up
Despite the challenges of shifting to eco-friendly food packaging, the drive to do so is well founded and probably inevitable. Environmentally safe packaging is in high demand.
The experiment introduces an idea to reduce solid waste from single-use plastics in the food delivery service sector and generates learning, it only makes sense for this program to continue, though the abovementioned challenges still need to be addressed.
There should be more packaging options that are recyclable or biodegradable, easily sourced and affordable. With the increased demand for eco-friendly packaging from the sector, food packaging requirements well defined and food safety standards agreed upon, it can only be assumed that the supply will follow. In the short-run the demand can be met through importation but for the program to work in the long run by making these materials more affordable and easily accessible, local manufacturers should be encouraged and supported.
In the ideal world, restaurants will use Eco-Safe packaging out of genuine concern for the environment as well as for consumer health and safety. In reality, restaurants are focusing on their bottom line or net income. A paradigm shift needs to happen for restaurants to believe that going green is good for business as it responds to what the consumers want. In the absence of such a paradigm shift, change is almost impossible. This UN Environment paper on single-use plastics provides some examples of instruments to minimize single-use plastics.
What could be next?
A hackathon can be organised to crowdsource solutions from various actors and to encourage start-ups and local producers to study and invest in producing eco-friendly packaging. This could be the optimal option as to reduce transportation costs and emissions as well! Another long-term vision is the tax exemption or subsidised tax on these environmentally friendly products. Grants and access to finance for green businesses and innovation should be promoted. The UN Guidelines for National Waste Management Strategy provides a roadmap for finding a unified solution to solid waste and is a good starting point for defining a way forward.
Ms. Ketmany Vilayvong, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Lao PDR
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.