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November 26, 2019

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Campus wises up to food delivery recycling

Last year as a student in the Global Development Studies class, my group and I spent time working to reduce the amount of food deliveries to the Concordia Campus and to convince local restaurants to use more sustainable materials for deliveries and takeout. While we made some progress educating our school community about the negative impact single-use containers have on the environment, we know this will not keep everyone from having food delivered. Therefore, this article serves as a primer for those individuals who want to learn more about the materials used to produce food delivery packaging so that they can make more educated decisions when ordering. Hopefully, this short guide will also inspire such consumers to order from more environmentally friendly restaurants.

Q: How do recycling centers work?

Recycling centers, contrary to popular belief, do not operate purely out of concern for the Earth. At the end of the day, recycling centers are businesses, and they need to make a profit in order to operate. The way they do this is by taking in recyclable goods and creating new materials for manufacturing. This means that recycling centers tend to be extremely picky about the kinds of materials they accept, because issues such as contamination, lack of volume, or composite materials make it impossible for these centers to turn a profit. Instead, when they find these kinds of materials, they often sell them in bulk to landfills. This begs the question: What do recycling centers recycle, and how can we minimize our unrecycled waste?

When considering the recycling of food delivery packages, the primary enemy is contamination. No container contaminated by substances, such as the oil from food, can be recycled. This can be solved for some containers with a quick rinse, but often this step is neglected. The other non-material issue is that recycling centers are working with machines that often cannot deal with extremely thin objects such as plastic bags. As we will see later, this completely prevents thin plastics from being recycled.

Q: What kinds of packages are used for food delivery?

First and foremost, we have plastics which are used not only in the actual food and beverage containers but also in things like utensils and bags. General plastics are categorized by type for the purpose of recycling. This is denoted by a number on the package. It should be noted, however, that not all plastics are recyclable or even reusable.

For delivery in Shanghai, the most common material for food delivery packaging is likely No. 5, polypropylene. These make up the clear plastic containers commonly used by most restaurants. These are popular among restaurants because they are durable, microwave-safe and have a high level of clarity. While polypropylene is recyclable, maintaining a high clarity poses a problem for recycling. In order to achieve that clarity, recycling centers have to be extra careful to avoid contamination. This means that unless these are clean of oil and other residue, they will not be recycled.

The second most common number for food delivery containers is No. 1, polyethylene terephthalate. This is what soda bottles are made of, and it is the most commonly recycled plastic. Plastic type No. 4, used in grocery bags, and No. 6, styrofoam, is also used in varying degrees in food delivery packaging. All of these plastics have a huge environmental impact, yet in most cases, even if these materials are recyclable, contamination or other factors will typically prevent them from being recycled.

Next, there is the matter of paper. When it comes to impact on the environment, not all paper is created equal. Some paper is coated with plastic in order to allow for waterproofing. This paper is never recyclable. Non-coated paper materials such as paper bags, on the other hand, are recyclable, given they have not been contaminated. It is important to note that juice box-like containers used for iced tea, milk and juice are not accepted by recycling centers.

Q: Is there a sustainable alternative?

When it comes to food delivery packaging, issues such as contamination make recycling very unlikely in most cases, so reducing the impact of our trash comes down to other factors, such as the containers’ ability to burn cleanly. One material which is superb in its low-energy cost during production, biodegradability, recyclability and ability to burn cleanly is bagasse. You have probably seen bagasse before and assumed it was a paper with some kind of strange ribbing. Bagasse is a byproduct of sugar cane production. It is made from the pulp after juicing, and typically it has been burned in order to fuel sugar cane farms. This material is probably the best solution for an environmentally minded consumer of takeout foods.

Ordering food is a pretty unsustainable practice, environmentally speaking, but an informed consumer can make decisions which greatly reduce the harm of their actions. Avoiding plastics, which do not degrade, and seeking out products like bagasse or other more environmentally friendly options can allow consumers to greatly lessen their impact on the environment while enjoying a “home-delivered” meal.

Global development study

Concordia’s Global Development Studies (GDS) is a high school applied learning course that has students pondering their individual roles in responding to global issues.

GDS students spend semester one developing a solid understanding of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals and what it means to be a changemaker.

In semester two, they engage in design thinking to create projects related to a sustainable development goal and spend the semester working with a team to make our community more green, sustainable and equitable.

GDS students are intrinsically motivated to achieve tangible and measurable goals that result in real and lasting change.


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