Commentary: Here’s what months of food deliveries and takeaways have taught us
COVID-19 may have undone Singapore’s zero-waste efforts, but it also presents an opportunity to build long-lasting habits, say Project bECOme’s Coco Oan and Ang Li Shan.
SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on Singapore’s food and beverage industry.
Most eateries breathed a sigh of relief with the announcement earlier this week that dining-in can resume in Phase 2 on Jun 19, if rules are followed.
Takeaway meals and deliveries from familiar haunts have been indispensable these two months in bringing a semblance of normalcy to our lives.
But as youths concerned about sustainability, one thing has become increasingly discomforting: Takeaway boxes, carriers and cutlery are often used once then thrown away. We’ve seen first-hand how a single takeaway meal for the family results in an astounding amount of waste.
A recent study by NUS alumni found that Singapore households generated an extra 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste – the weight of about 90 double-decker buses – from takeaway and food deliveries during the two-month circuit breaker.
Overall household waste had also soared with the restrictions on dining out. The National Environment Agency reported that 73,000 tonnes of waste was generated in April, up 11 per cent from the previous month.
While some businesses have switched to more “eco-friendly” packaging like “biodegradable” containers, such packaging may not move the environment needle. In fact, many of these options take more resources to produce, with their benefits unrealised since waste is incinerated in Singapore.
COVID-19 REVERSES MOVES TOWARDS ZERO WASTE
Prior to the pandemic, Singapore was making slow but steady progress towards zero-waste.
In 2017, non-governmental organisation Zero Waste SG started the Bring Your Own (BYO) Singapore movement to nudge businesses and consumers towards reusable containers, cups and bags.
The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources declared 2019 to be the Year Towards Zero Waste, which saw FairPrice extending its plastic bag charge trial after a successful month-long pilot, and chain bakeries like BreadTalk and Duke Bakery rolling out new schemes to reduce plastic bags.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 seems to have undone many of these efforts. Businesses and consumers have become more cautious about hygiene, wary of the risk that reusables could be contaminated with the virus.
Some customers have expressed discomfort at the sight of personal containers placed beside disposable ones. Stores that used to support BYO like Koi placed a temporary ban on reusable cups.
But experts say well-washed reusables are safe when the coronavirus can be killed with regular dish soap and sanitisation
HOPE YET FOR BYO
However, the surge in packaging consumption has also spurred positive change.
Earlier in April, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing urged people to BYO for their takeaways to “be more environmentally sustainable”.
The pandemic has also highlighted practical reasons for businesses to reduce single-use packaging. Hawkers and F&B operators are grappling with higher packaging costs, given that suppliers have been overwhelmed by a surge in demand for food containers.
READ: Commentary: The enormous growth of plastic packaging as take-outs and food deliveries surge must stop
Even our previously unconcerned family and friends have taken action. Our fathers have never taken to BYO and would even dismiss our calls to do so in the past.
But our families’ sheer number of takeaways during the circuit breaker have made them see how much waste is generated, and how beneficial BYO can be, from ensuring food safety to supporting local businesses. BYO has now become second nature to them.
F&B OUTLETS’ ZERO-WASTE STRATEGIES
These habits may well outlast COVID-19, as the momentum to cut waste grows.
While consumers are doing more to BYO, F&B outlets are also making efforts to cut packaging.
Shops like The Veggie Dojo offer reusable containers for food to be delivered in. Upon arrival, customers simply transfer the food onto their own plates and return the containers immediately.
Establishments like Bollywood Veggies let their customers return them on the next delivery.
Container-sharing services like Muuse and barePack aid restaurants and diners in reducing plastic waste.
Operating on a subscription model, these services charge diners for unlimited use of their reusable containers and cups. barePack, for example, charges users S$5 per month or S$36 per year – but during the circuit breaker made their service complimentary.
Diners rent the reusables to take away food at participating outlets, and return them after eating. Diners can also request the food be delivered in reusables from restaurants that offer them.
The container-sharing services lend reusables at no cost to restaurants, saving them the hassle and cost of investing in their own inventory of reusables.
These services have been running before COVID-19, and have gained traction over the circuit breaker. Muuse currently has over 40 F&B outlets under its belt, while barePack has over 60.
Most of the participating outlets are restaurants and cafes in the city, but since the circuit breaker kicked in, both companies have expanded into eateries in residential areas and have launched delivery services, partnering with names like Salad Stop and the Coffee Club to come up with daily menus.
PUSHING FOR WIDESPREAD ADOPTION
Unfortunately, F&B outlets dedicated to waste reduction remain a minority. Many are still deterred by the perceived hassle and cost, and see little benefit to cutting packaging. After all, why change when the status quo works fine?
However, taking steps to reduce single-use plastic can fatten bottom lines by reducing packaging costs in the long run. Moreover, they can appeal to a new wave of eco-conscious customers by expounding socially responsible values.
Operating more sustainably need not be daunting. Eateries can start small and scale up along the way.
For starters, eateries could stop giving cutlery and napkins by default.
They could also get creative in reducing excess packaging. For example, multiple portions of rice can be put in one large container instead of being individually packaged.
This period is an opportunity for F&B outlets to experiment, test receptiveness and build habits among customers and staff.
THE ROLE OF CUSTOMERS
Customers also have a huge stake in turning the plastic tide.
With social distancing measures set to continue for months, customers who purchase takeaways should BYO whenever possible.
The process is straightforward: Bring a clean and dry container large enough for your purchase. Hand it over to the staff when ordering and request for your food to be put directly into it. Say that your aim is to reduce waste, so that staff will avoid packing disposables altogether.
Of course, your attempts may occasionally be rejected by companies citing hygiene concerns. In this case, take it in your stride and do not be demoralised.
Beyond changing our own habits, we could encourage our favourite restaurants to adopt more sustainable measures. As non-profit zero-waste chef Anne-Marie Bonneau says: “We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
READ: Commentary: Recycle or reduce waste? Why Southeast Asia’s ocean plastic pile has no easy answers
INDIVIDUAL ACTION IS NOT ENOUGH
For some, seeing plastic boxes and bowls stacked up in their cupboards have made them rethink their consumption patterns and begin cultivating eco-conscious habits.
Yet individual effort will not suffice in the fight against the growing mountain of waste, especially if food deliveries become the default post-pandemic.
Mr Chan’s call to action was a move in the right direction. If we were serious, we would consider more aggressive policies to shift the needle: Levelling taxes on packaging waste, financial and infrastructural support for zero-waste systems and whole-of-government adoption of zero-waste measures.
The rise of food takeaways and deliveries presents us an opportunity to accelerate our nation’s zero-waste journey – but they will count only if we seize them.
Coco Oan is an Environmental Studies student at Yale-NUS College. Ang Li Shan is a Business student at the National University of Singapore. They are both members of Project bECOme, a youth-run organisation that works to promote environmental sustainability among businesses and consumers.