Food delivery has a packaging problem and nobody feels it more than urban families. Already cramped for space, city-dwellers pay for the convenience of meal services with a temporary 'rental' of packaging in their balcony, kitchen or coat closet. A slight reprieve arrives on garbage/recycling day - though the act of deconstructing and squishing into our bins and bags creates its own frustration.
Speaking to over 200 parents over the last several months, I was surprised how much packaging came up. In fact, it was frequently cited as a barrier to long-term commitment to a meal kit or grocery delivery.
At elemeno, our aim is to reduce our environmental footprint as much as possible, while also staying true to our mandate of making lives easier for parents. But I've come to learn that there aren't any perfect solutions just yet. Here is what I found:
I conducted a meal test with 20 parents in December 2020 and used compostable sugar-cane clamshells. Easy to transport and easy to squish down and compost, these seemed like a sensible fit. I even liked how I could stamp my logo and any other messaging onto the container, meaning I wouldn't have to waste paper on labels that parents would have to peel off each time prior to composting. But I learned that this material is only useful for an hour or two, as it dries out the meals too much, and thus can only be an option if I can have parents immediately put the meals into something more airtight.
I then spoke to a company called Good Natured, who make a compostable bio-plastic. Their packages are very promising and I plant to stay in touch with them; however, they don't offer a multi-dish clamshell at this time which means I would have to give parents multiple smaller packages upon each delivery. It also appears that they aren't yet accepted by our municipal recycling program. That felt like a pain for parents and potentially more packaging waste overall.
I then looked into reusable containers. These are great in theory but may cause greater environmental destruction than intended. First, reusable containers are subject to breakage and discoloration that can render them unusable. Second, the chemicals needed to sterilize these containers, as per government regulations, can be particularly harmful to our water systems. Finally, the added transport needed to take to a cleaning facility, as well as the pickup of canceled subscriptions creates a further drain on the environment.
I haven't lost hope, however. With recent local startups such as Livlite and Eat the Dishes, I'm thrilled to see creative solutions coming forward. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to work with these entrepreneurs.
So that leaves the good ol' recyclable plastic container. This approach is not without its challenges either. With the increase in consumers using take-out, delivery, meal kits, etc. there's an actual shortage on packaging and bags. The containers that my first month of meals will arrive in was literally the last case of these packages that I could get my hands on prior to Chinese New Year.
Fortunately, the containers that I've chosen can be thrown into your blue bin; but they are also microwave-safe and sturdy enough to be used a few times prior to recycling. So hopefully parents can get an extra use or two out of them.
While this is the end of the article, it isn't the end of the story. While the recyclable containers achieve want I need for now - easy transport and preserves freshness - I plan to keep researching and testing until I find the right solution. It's a juggling act between environmental impact, convenience and cost, but one that I'm determined to keep digging into. Watch this space.