Nov 24, 2022 06:31 PM

Smart Talks: Leveraging Tech to Reduce Plastic Waste From Takeout Food

Editor's note: Caixin Global and the Yale Center Beijing in August 2021 launched a Smart Talks on Climate Change program, including an essay competition, to endow leaders of the next generation aged 16 to 25 to tackle the problem. We're publishing the top three essays from the winners of the competition as this year’s program concluded in November.

When I only have 10 minutes to eat dinner, ordering takeout is probably not the best choice if I want to finish before an evening class. A similar situation takes place at universities, office buildings, department stores and other modern working environments, for one reason or another. Takeout services undoubtedly enjoy growing popularity for their convenience, catering to people from all walks of life. To my dismay, however, disposable utensils and lunchboxes — made mostly from plastic and widely used to package these takeout orders — usually end up in the trash.

At the end of 2020, China’s takeout food couriers were delivering 17.12 billion orders a year, with growth showing no sign of slowing. A more visual description of this phenomenon is that takeout orders are piling up in my fast-paced circle. Most of these orders come in containers made of No. 5 plastic polypropylene, a type of plastic known for being cheap but durable. Manufacturing the stuff also generates a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastics produced more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases — equal to the emissions from 189 500-megawatt coal power plants. Plastic waste also threatens the marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as human health.

While food delivery services offer the option of leaving out the utensils, only about 18% of customers in China actually choose to do so. From what I’ve personally seen, the situation is even worse. People seldom take the “no utensils” option when they eat in public. And even if they all did, it wouldn’t solve the problem of the waste generated by disposable containers.

The sharing economy is popular in China. In most places, one can usually see shared bicycles parked on the side of the road. Shared power stations that dispense batteries for charging one’s electronics can also be found at almost every restaurant or shopping center. The popularity of these things has led me to the idea of combining the sharing model with takeaway containers and tableware, just like forming an e-restaurant.

To make this idea work, the government needs to create a standardized tableware designation that consists of different sizes that are suitable for a variety of dishes, such as large bowl, small bowl and lunch box. Then the government needs to authorize several companies to manufacture and manage these standardized containers and cutlery for takeout food orders. These companies need to be responsible for collecting, cleaning, and disinfecting these items to safeguard the health of their customers. If restaurants offer takeout, they must rent these standardized items from the authorized companies.

Here’s how the model could work. Customers are required to pay a certain amount of money as a deposit for the shared utensils when they place their orders. That deposit will be automatically refunded after they return these utensils to a community recycling point. These points should be located at places where surrounding residents frequently order takeout food, which can be determined by big data analysis. Customers can scan a QR code on the utensils to deposit them at the collection point and confirm their return. They don’t need to return the utensils immediately, but can do so at their own convenience. Also, they should do some basic cleaning work before returning the utensils. The companies responsible for managing these utensils should take them away as soon as possible, clean them thoroughly and sterilize them so that they can be used again. This process would create a reusable takeout utensil service that is tolerably convenient, reduces waste and is much more environmentally friendly than disposable cutlery.

After carefully reexamining this scheme, I find that I’m just reassembling existing models to create one for reusable takeout utensils. For instance, under my idea, management of the utensils is the responsibility of authorized third-party companies that are independent of restaurants. It’s a lot like China Tower, a telecommunications tower infrastructure service provider that is independent of the companies who provide communications and information services. The recycling points are actually the same as the oft-seen express delivery package lockers that now exist in many communities. In many cases, we already have the technological means to help us prevent climate change. We just haven’t bothered to apply it, even though people’s awareness of environmental protection is now much better than it was 60 years ago. If we all think differently and try out more possibilities, the future city of roughly zero emissions will appear much earlier.

Huang Yinzhi is a student at the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University.

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