How food delivery platforms are trying to reduce single-use plastic waste

After testing alternatives to single-use plastic through its home grocery delivery services, Walmart is looking to extend these sustainability efforts to its curbside pickup and other delivery services. Other food delivery platforms are making similar inroads.

In the past, sustainability-conscious customers could choose to bring their own bags or use paper products to wrap their groceries. But, during the pandemic, the percentage of consumers who had shopped online rose from 19% to 79%, according to a Gallup study.

Delivery platforms have traditionally focused on speed rather than sustainability: for third-party vendors like Instacart, for example, grocery stores determine their own packaging and are the companies held responsible for orders on shipping costs. state-based plastic bags. However, as the food delivery space matures, some vendors are beginning to take plastic packaging reduction into their own hands through reusable bags and recycled packaging materials.

Last month, Walmart expanded its direct-to-fridge delivery service, InHome, to 30 million homes. As the program grows, Walmart is testing new ways to reduce the plastic and packaging used in the service. One is to use reusable tote bags that Walmart would use, collect, wash and reuse.

Last fall, Walmart first tested the bags for its “InHome” delivery service, which allows consumers to order delivery that will be unpacked in their own refrigerators and pantries. The pilot launched at just one New York store, but the company now plans to expand the service to the rest of the Northeast, Jane Ewing, Walmart’s senior vice president of sustainability, told CNBC. With that, Walmart plans to experiment with using these and other single-use plastic alternatives through its curbside collection program and other delivery services in the first half of 2022.

Beyond food delivery, Walmart has previously committed to using packaging that is 100% recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable by 2025. This, the company explained in a sustainability statement, would require collaboration with suppliers on recycled or reusable packaging.

Groceries are the biggest contributor to plastic waste, according to the Baker Institute for Public Policy, and account for more than 82 million tons of waste annually, according to the EPA. On top of that, grocery delivery also has product packaging waste, in addition to the already very high product packaging waste.

“As the pandemic has forced consumer eating behavior, demand for online food delivery services has grown, increasing with it the consumption of single-use plastics,” wrote Chad Lusk, senior director of Alvarez & Marsal Consumer Retail Group, in an email.

Lusk added that although many food delivery services do not manufacture or sell plastic-based products themselves, they should still “feel a degree of responsibility, given [that] space has served as a catalyst for plastic consumption. And, to varying degrees, some companies have started to take action.

Walmart – which sells plastic goods through its multiple delivery service options – is part of the “Beyond The Bag” collective along with CVS, Target and Kroger. The idea is to fund – and eventually implement – ​​technology that eliminates the need for plastic bags for online delivery and in-store purchases. Walmart has already piloted four winners’ technology, such as a bag cleaning system kiosk and an app that tracks and rewards the use of reusable bags.

Other players in the grocery delivery space — like so-called ugly vendors — have extended their sustainability efforts from reducing food waste to reducing packaging and plastic waste. Misfit Market and Imperfect Foods indicate on their websites what type of packaging they use and why.

Misfit Market, for example, currently uses recyclable shipping boxes, Paperlite inner boxes, and recyclable Climacell insulation to ship its products. When product bags are needed, the company uses compostable bags instead of plastic. According to the Misfit Market site, the company is “additionally testing a few types of eco-friendly insulation that protect your groceries in transit.

Imperfect Foods, meanwhile, has a program where customers can return packaging that was used to ship items to them — like egg carton liners and gel packs — to Imperfect Foods for the company to reuses them in other commands. Imperfect Foods also provides information on where consumers can recycle or dispose of packaging they don’t return.

Additionally, while meal delivery companies have been criticized for using too much packaging in the past, some are trying to become more sustainable. Blue Apron partnered with How2Recycle in 2020 for a labeling program that would make it clear to consumers how and where to recycle packaging. In 2021, Blue Apron pledged to achieve 100% “recyclable, reusable or compostable” packaging by 2025.

Other food delivery services are adapting more slowly

However, many of the biggest grocery delivery providers don’t sell products themselves, including Shipt, Instacart, and FreshDirect. Instead, these companies partner with grocers and, in turn, leave the packaging decisions to them.

Instacart, for example, only allows consumers to specify their bag preferences in the comments, instead of using an overt on or off button. The company’s last comment on the issue dates back to 2019 when a Twitter user asked if Instacart was planning to offer a reusable bag service, versus plastic.

“While we don’t yet have a solution to this problem, our team is working to make improvements to provide a better and more environmentally friendly way to shop.” noted Instacart’s Twitter in response to a query in 2019. “Right now, the best option is to ask your shopper to use paper bags through our built-in chat feature.”

Implementing sustainable packaging is a potentially more complicated model for platforms that rely on partnerships than those that fill their own inventory. Walmart can adopt a single packaging standard across all of its stores, while Instacart must account for variations by state, city, and store.

Judith Enck, president of the nonprofit Beyond Plastic, said “local laws” are also an important factor in getting delivery services to reduce plastic waste. Many cities and states have fees associated with plastic bags and even paper bags – New York, for example, banned plastic altogether and added a five cent tax for each paper bag.

“[Delivery providers] not doing enough to reduce their use of plastic, in the absence of new laws,” Enck said.

Still, Enck hopes plastic and packaging reduction is coming. Enck pointed to a recent study by Ipsos and Oceana that found that 82% of Americans said they were concerned about plastic pollution, and 77% believed companies should stop producing so much plastic.

“Food delivery providers are in a prime position to create high-impact actions in shorter timeframes to improve sustainability through material changes or circular systems,” Lusk said. “Those who don’t plan and start moving will be left behind once it becomes a key purchase selection criteria for consumers.”

Bryce K. Locke