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[Feature] Plastics pile up amid food delivery boom

Food delivery app operators urged to take action to reduce plastic waste

Piles of packaging material waste are seen at a waste disposal facility in Seoul on Wednesday. Parcel and food delivery services saw a rise in popularity during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic. (Yonhap)
Piles of packaging material waste are seen at a waste disposal facility in Seoul on Wednesday. Parcel and food delivery services saw a rise in popularity during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic. (Yonhap)
Food delivery apps such as Baemin and Coupang Eats have brought us great comfort in this pandemic, as months of social distancing and restrictions on business hours left us with little choice.

But as the market nearly doubled to 17.38 trillion won ($15.22 million) in South Korea last year, with 27 million monthly users and 120,000 riders according to Statistics Korea and the Fair Trade Commission, plastic waste has also increased considerably.

In one Facebook group for people trying to avoid using plastic containers, one user shared her experience of carrying her own containers to a Mexican restaurant in her neighborhood so she could bring the food home.

“It is uncomfortable to see all the plastic waste when I order food. I might do this from time to time,” the post read.

Lee Min-hee, the Seoul-based woman behind the online post, who wished to use a pseudonym, is among many who feel divided between the convenience of food delivery services and the growing amount of plastic waste they generate.

“Since the pandemic, I have been ordering food very often. Now I find myself throwing out recyclables more frequently than before.”

As the volume of food delivery orders was up 78 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, the amount of plastic waste rose 19 percent, according to data from the Ministry of Environment.

Waste from packaging materials that included Styrofoam or other plastic foam products saw a 14 percent year-on-year increase.

Environmental group Green Korea estimates that some 2.7 million orders are made on food delivery apps every day, which translates to at least 8.3 million plastic containers, many of which the group says are not recyclable in practice.

In April, the group staged a protest outside the headquarters of Woowa Brothers, operator of the country’s top food delivery app, Baemin, as it urged the platform to take action against the growing amount of plastic waste.

Their calls did not fall on deaf ears as Korea’s major delivery app operators, Baemin, Yogiyo and Coupang Eats, made a joint decision not to send out disposable utensils starting in June unless customers ask for them.

Baemin also sells eco-friendly containers to restaurant owners on its maintenance, repair and operations platform, according to the company.

“We jointly developed a container with a South Korean startup which is designed to use up to 50 percent less plastic by using eco-friendly materials,” one Baemin representative said.

“Green classes” are also being held to raise environmental awareness among restaurant owners.

As climate change awareness grows, companies have many reasons to be more environmental-friendly.

Three in 4 people said they felt “guilty” or “uncomfortable” throwing away waste from delivery food, according to a survey carried out by Green Korea. Recent boycotts, including one against Coupang over the working conditions of its staff, show that consumer activism is alive and well in this country.

Environmental, social and governance efforts have also become synonymous with sustainability as investors seek to incentivize socially responsible practices.

Presidential hopeful Lee Nak-yeon said last week that the next president post-COVID must be an “ESG president” as he proposed plans to force the National Pension Service to consider ESG investment.

Retail giant Shinsegae announced plans on Sunday to adopt eco-friendly bagasse pulp containers, made from sugarcane waste, for select fresh food products sold at E-mart stores as part of its ESG efforts.

But Green Korea activist Heo Seung-eun said delivery app operators have a long way to go in reducing plastic use.

“How much impact do you think those actions have had on reducing plastic waste? One fewer spoon does not mean much when there are almost 10 containers (each order),” the activist said.

Against this backdrop, Gyeonggi Province is pushing for reusable containers to be used for delivery services.

As recyclable plastic waste rose by 22. 7 percent between 2019 and 2020 in the region, the initiative to collect containers and wash them before reusing them has made headlines.

With some 140 restaurants currently taking part in the trial, the provincial government will provide container collection and washing services to encourage the use of reusable containers.

Food delivery services have yet to follow suit, citing pandemic woes and additional costs as delivery riders would have to make an extra trip.

Other alternatives exist such as paper food containers made by Good Pulp, a pulp container company founded last year.

“The reaction has been positive. Most of our customers are environmentally conscious people who are happy to replace plastic lids and PET cups with paper alternatives,” said CEO Oh Ju-won.

“Apart from soups, they are compatible with any dishes that can be delivered in plastic containers such as tonkatsu or bulgogi,” he said.

By Yim Hyun-su (
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Korea Herald daum