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Hong Kong environmental issues

Food delivery companies try to help Hong Kong kick its 25 million-a-day plastic utensil habit

At least three firms now offer an option on their apps that allow customers to skip disposable cutlery in a move a local environmental group calls an important first step in the waste crisis  

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 9:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 10:50am

Food delivery companies in Hong Kong have responded to environmental pressure to cut the plastic waste they generate by offering customers the option to reject disposable cutlery in mobile app orders. 

Tens of millions of single-use cutlery pieces are estimated to be thrown away in the city daily, and environmental group Green Earth believes the growth in food ordering apps has contributed to this.

As the sector – worth more than HK$423 million (US$53.9 million) in 2016, according to Euromonitor – continues to develop and mature, more Hongkongers will opt to have meals brought directly to their homes or workplaces.

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Beginning in February, Green Earth began writing to the city’s major food delivery operators to persuade them to introduce a function in apps allowing users to choose not to have plastic cutlery in their orders.

Out of these, at least three – Foodpanda, Honestbee and Deliveroo – agreed to introduce the option in their apps.

“In the face of the current crisis in plastic waste, we’re not at the most ideal situation yet but this is a necessary first step in a long journey,” said Hahn Chu Hon-keung, director of environmental advocacy at Green Earth. 

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According to latest government data, a daily average of 154 tonnes of disposable plastic tableware was disposed of in the city’s overflowing landfills in 2016 – a 23-tonne or 17.5 per cent increase from 2015, Chu said.

With the average cutlery pack – containing a plastic knife, spoon and fork – weighing about 18.3 grams, this would work out to about 25 million pieces of plastic tableware going to the tips daily or about 9.25 billion pieces of cutlery in a year.

“A lot of the time, customers are forced to just accept the disposable cutlery because they are not given a choice,” Chu added.

Foodpanda managing director Arun Makhija last week said they had recently introduced a “no cutlery” option at the top of dozens of restaurant menus – including for Pizza Hut, Itacho Sushi and Crystal Jade – in its app that would allow customers to tap “no thank you, I don’t need cutlery”.

The add-on is included on the receipt to the restaurant rather than just being a special request or a remark that might be overlooked or ignored.

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Since introducing the feature, Foodpanda said a fifth of its users now opted for no cutlery. Makhija said the goal was to eventually get to 100 per cent. “We [food delivery companies] have to take responsibility for the industry that we have created and for the demand that is now here in Hong Kong,” he said.

“Yes, we have a lot of conflicting priorities sometimes; we want to grow, and expand, but we have to take responsibility for the environmental impact that our services have brought.”

Makhija said the company was exploring the implementation of a centralised packaging ordering system, which would allow restaurants to order standardised, biodegradable packaging directly from a supplier that Foodpanda has negotiated terms with without having to worry about economies of scale.

Uber Eats said it did not have such an option but customers were “encouraged to leave any special requests in the ‘add a note’ section” before placing an order. “At the same time, we are examining ways to make it easier for customers to opt out of cutlery and serviettes,” a spokesman added.

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Singapore-based Honestbee said since last month, it began allowing customers to opt out of disposable cutlery. “To support environmental protection, Honestbee has added a ‘reminder’ in our apps to encourage customers to reduce disposable cutlery. We have [developed] an ‘option’ that offers users a choice to help the environment and reduce plastic waste,” a spokeswoman said.

Deliveroo said it introduced in August an “opt-in only” policy for cutlery with more than 1,000 of its restaurant partners. For every order placed, customers have to check a box indicating they want cutlery included in the delivery. The move was expected to save more than nine tonnes of plastic in a year, the company said.