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The Environmental Impact of Food Delivery

Here's how eco-conscious restaurants can reduce it.
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The food delivery app market has seen exponential growth in recent years and shows no signs of slowing. Estimated at just $22.4 billion in 2021, online restaurant ordering is tipped to reach $320 billion by 2029. For good reason: delivery apps give consumers more choice and greater convenience, but this comes at a cost with the planet left to pick up the tab.

Our food systems produce around 25% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Food miles — the distance food items travel from producer to consumer — are a big part of the problem. It’s estimated that the carbon footprint of a household that spends just $63 per week on food delivery services is 450% higher than those that don’t. And these customers aren’t in a small minority… There’s a reason why DoorDash alone has a fleet of over two million US couriers shuttling orders between restaurants and users.

Just like the delivery workforce, the environment is undergoing a real shift in dealing with all these orders. If it's to reap the rewards, the restaurant industry owes our planet a tip and must do its part to reduce the environmental impact of rising food delivery rates.


Planet-friendly deliveries

Some 43% of people say they would pay more for takeout from restaurants that employ sustainable practices. Customers want greener meals and, as the saying goes, the customer is always right.

Restaurants can make the greatest and most immediate impact out on the road. The more time drivers spend stuck in traffic jams, the more pollution they’re pumping into the atmosphere. Here, GPS tracking and route management software can help. Utilizing artificial intelligence, these tools can automatically calculate the most efficient order prioritization and route to prevent delays, minimize mileage, and reduce fuel consumption. Similarly, journey tracking tools can be installed on employees’ phones to keep count of every mile they travel. In turn, restaurants can commit to offsetting the environmental impact through carbon reduction schemes.

However, the best route for restaurants to take is to encourage environmentally friendly transportation, such as e-bikes. Shown to reduce a user’s CO2 emissions by 225 kilograms each year, they offer a far friendlier alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. Multiple that by millions of couriers and the carbon savings could be huge.

Pedal bikes are an even greener option, but social sustainability is important too. Delivery couriers are among the hardest workers in the US — and often for little reward. Capable of traveling up to speeds of 25 MPH while requiring far less physical exertion than a traditional bike, e-bikes offer an eco-friendly compromise that works for restaurants, delivery workers, and the environment.


Catering to our planet

For decades, plastic containers have been the go-to in the food delivery space. They’re secure, stackable… and they also take 500 years to decompose. It goes without saying that single-use plastic packaging should be avoided at all costs. Thankfully, biotechnology companies such as Tipa, Loliweare, and Marinatex have been tapping into natural, biodegradable materials to create green packaging and cutlery suitable for the food delivery space.

Sustainability matters to today's consumers and restaurant operators. Two out of three (66%) consumers surveyed feel it’s important that restaurants are open about their practices to limit food waste. According to the National Restaurant Association’s annual What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, sustainability will continue to influence menus and how restaurants make decisions.

However, receipts are often overlooked. It’s just paper… How much harm can it possibly cause? Well, paper receipts are often coated in toxic chemicals that would cause contamination if recycled, so they’re sent to landfill instead. With close to 200 million Americans ordering takeout at least once per week, that’s a lot of wasted paper — most of which can be easily eliminated with the widespread adoption of e-receipts. Rather than stapling a receipt to the side of the bag, send the customer an email instead. Chances are, they will appreciate it far more. Studies show that 90% of American consumers would prefer an e-receipt, with 70% citing the environment as the primary reason.


Cutting out food waste

It’s not just plastic that’s clogging up our garbage system. Restaurants generate 33 million pounds of food waste annually and that’s just what we’re able to track. There’s no data on how much more is lost to unsatisfactory deliveries. With research showing one in four orders placed through a third-party app leave customers dissatisfied, there’s undoubtedly a mountain of food going uneaten each day. And it’s not just food going to waste, but the energy and resources it takes to process, harvest, package, and distribute it.

Restaurants can’t force customers to finish every last pizza slice or control the traffic to ensure every order arrives at the perfect temperature, but they can navigate these issues by tailoring menus and processes to minimize them. There’s a wealth of software that supports establishments without adding to the chaos of a busy kitchen. Waste monitoring tools can offer a good indication of a dish’s popularity. Likewise, complaint tracking tools can provide useful insight into which dishes are causing problems — whether they’re arriving cold, undercooked, or just not quite to customers’ taste. If it’s earning your drivers abuse and dragging down your star rating, perhaps it’s time to strike it off the menu.

With online food orders rising faster than dine-in sales, restaurants cannot afford to pass up on the rise of delivery apps, but doing so without environmental concern risks leaving a sour taste in consumers’ mouths. By embracing technology and implementing these simple changes, restaurants can deliver an experience that better serves our planet, delivery workers, and customers alike.

About the Author

Mike Peregudov is the co-founder and CEO of Whizz, an e-bike subscription platform for last-mile delivery drivers. A serial entrepreneur with a decade of experience in last-mile logistics, Peregudov supports the growth of world-changing startups as part of s16vc, an $80 million investment fund and community for Europe’s emerging business leaders.

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