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The takeaway delivery boom sparked by pandemic lockdowns shows no sign of abating. Global growth is forecast to jump from $120bn in 2021 to $300bn in 2027. But convenience can carry a high cost in terms of CO2 emissions from the preparation, packaging, and transportation of fast food, much of which still relies on polluting petrol-driven cars, motorbikes, and scooters.
But consumers can make their slice of home delivery more sustainable. Choosing plant-based dishes is one way to do it. One survey suggests that around 86 per cent of the UK population eats meat or fish. If they went vegetarian for a year it's estimated they could collectively save almost 38m tonnes of CO2, while going vegan could increase that saving to more than 57m tonnes.
Demanding less packaging is also key. It's responsible for an estimated 29 per cent of all the sector's greenhouse gas emissions overall, though some studies point to a higher figure. A 2019 survey across Chinese cities found that on average packaging contributed to a hefty 86 per cent of all CO2 emissions in the delivery process, with transport making up the rest.
In Australia, increased deliveries over the pandemic coincided with a 20 per cent rise in solid household waste. Researchers there have carried out detailed calculations of the CO2 equivalent emitted in the lifetime of packaging wrapped around the most popular orders online.
The cardboard, paper, and plastic holding the average hamburger meal deal tops the table, emitting the equivalent of almost 300 grammes of CO2 proportion. A typical pizza box produces 200 grammes, while a Chinese takeaway scores the lowest equivalent of 160 grammes when delivered in a plastic container and bag.
Recycled packaging has a slightly smaller carbon footprint, but only 10 per cent less due to the energy used in the recycling process. Paper bags actually create more emissions than plastic ones because of the carbon released as they decompose, but are less toxic to the environment in the long-term. Ultimately, all packaging contributes to the extra CO2 hidden in home delivery.