Sending a message: Is the delivery industry ready to go green?

One of the biggest takeaways of 2020 is the impact of delivery services on the environment. Is the delivery industry ‒ that so heavily relies on plastic packaging ‒ ready to adapt to a more eco-friendly strategy?

Writer: Alexander Hancock
Editor: Bethany Maia Evans
Artist: Vera Liu


In the wake of the first wave of coronavirus, when the world was put on pause and we were all confined to our flats or houses, one of, if not, the only thing that managed to buoy our spirits was the prospect of an online delivery. Whether it was yeast for bread-making, at-home work-out equipment that you ended up using once, or even the do-it-yourself hairdressing scissors that still live in their box at the back of your cupboard, online deliveries ‒ both big and small ‒ were the cornerstone of our happiness. A true testament perhaps, to how bad things were outside our front doors.

With the ever-growing popularity and accessibility of online shopping, it begs the question: why go to the store, when I can order online? Especially this year, as we’ve adapted to socialising less and distancing ourselves from others, the fact that online deliveries can eliminate prolonged contact with other people, and replace it with the quick exchange of a paper bag, reinforces the argument that online deliveries have been ‒ at times ‒ the best option. 

So, if you can order an entire three-course meal by tapping a few buttons, receive a package within two hours and get a new laptop without so much as moving from your bed, is there anything bad about ordering things online? Other than the dread and guilt that comes with tallying up all the deliveries you’ve received over the past couple of weeks, the biggest drawback of online deliveries isn’t the damage it does on your attempts to budget. It’s the environment. 

In the excitement of tearing open a new package, it’s easy to forget about the seemingly never-ending avalanche of infill that comes with something as small as a new phone charger. Cardboard, aluminium, styrofoam, bubblewrap, air pillows. These low-cost, multipurpose materials now appear to be ubiquitous; reports indicate the presence of microbeads in the sediment of some of the most remote lakes in the UK.  In another study, fish in the River Thames were shown to be drowning in plastic, with 84.1 pieces of plastic found in only one litre of river water. Just recently, researchers approximated that 94,000 microplastics flow down the Thames every second. 

Single-use plastic from deliveries plays a huge role in this worrying trend. Here in the UK, the delivery service is a thriving industry, with more than 7.5 billion orders placed in 2019 for food deliveries alone. Among people aged 18 to 24, fears of accessing food due to COVID-19 caused a huge surge in deliveries, with 60% of those surveyed in this age bracket stating that they had started to use food delivery services more regularly as of March. Considering that packaging makes up half of the five million tonnes of plastic used every year in the UK, the mountain of garbage caused by disposable cutlery, sauce packets and lids seems more pressing than ever. If numbers from the past three years are anything to go by (there was a 39% increase in food deliveries in the UK between 2016 and 2019), 2020 will see a new peak. Although companies have made efforts to cut back on single-use plastics by opting for cardboard packaging, these attempts are still riddled with loopholes. While a more eco-friendly material than plastic, cardboard boxes are produced at the expense of hundreds of millions of trees, and many packages made from cardboard are, in fact, lined with plastic.

The issue doesn’t end here. As the demand for doorstep deliveries increases, and expectations of one-day package arrivals are increasingly normalised, many fear that the days of transporting food by bike are numbered. Diesel-fueled vans and lorries contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that inhibit the fight against climate change. In 2018, the juggernaut that is Amazon purportedly discharged 44.4 million metric tons of carbon; a quantity that equals the annual carbon emissions of a small country.

Message received: How companies are responding to demands for more sustainable substitutes

So, what is the solution? If the frequency of online deliveries is skyrocketing for both food and commerce, I don’t think we can bank on the delivery industry to cut down its use of plastic or reduce its carbon emissions. Or can we?

Take Just Eat, the most popular food delivery service in the UK. The company has partnered with the sustainable packaging company Notla in an effort to significantly reduce their use of single-use plastic. How? By using a gamut of materials made from seaweed to replace non-biodegradable plastics (you may have already heard of their ‘edible water bubbles’ that came out in 2014, also made of seaweed). Presently trialing these materials in sauce sachets and delivery boxes, the new invention promises to bring about seismic shifts in waste pollution, especially given that these seaweed-lined boxes can “decompose in four weeks”.

Another company that appears poised to revolutionise the food delivery industry is PriestmanGoode, who have designed reusable containers made entirely from sustainable materials. Their mantra: “to make packaging desirable, not disposable”. By substituting single-use plastics with a mix of substances sourced from algae and piñatex (a fibre derived from pineapple leaves), the company has produced a range of fashionable products such as bags, lids and insulators that look appealing and protect the environment. Customers are rewarded with discounts and deals if they return the packaging to the company.

Green light on green vehicles?

While Amazon’s ethical principles have been ‒ at best ‒ questionable, CEO Jeff Bezos has announced the company’s commitment to leading a more sustainable future. Their first plan of action included commissioning 100,000 electric vans to be on the road by 2021. Along with the introduction of more eco-friendly vehicles, the company aims to be powered entirely by solar panels or other renewable resources by 2030, with the ultimate goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2040. Other businesses have embraced similar schemes; Sainsbury’s and Co-op plan to replace a number of diesel vans with e-cargo bikes, creating a zero emission delivery service that is bound to cut a significant portion of emissions, while providing fast and effective deliveries.  

With the recent developments in the delivery industry, it’s difficult to predict how it can continue to evolve, when everything that we could ever need appears to be at our fingertips. Yet as we’ve seen in the past, technology is constantly changing. With ‘float-down’ restaurants that deliver food via mini parachutes, or the Orwellian delivery drones that Amazon and Domino’s are preparing for launch, the possibilities are endless. Companies such as Magway have even suggested subterranean delivery pipes that would transport goods via pods powered by magnetic motors, thereby eliminating carbon emissions. With these developments come pledges to reduce plastic pollution and replace existing carbon-emitting vehicles with cars and vans powered by renewable energy sources. While contributing to a more eco-friendly society, these companies also set themselves up for reaping financial rewards, creating an environment conducive to higher levels of productivity, efficiency and of course profit. 

Let’s just hope that their promises for a ‘greener’ future are ones that put the environment first.

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