For many people, a Friday or Saturday night grab-and-go meal is a well-deserved treat after a week of cooking and washing up. But for those trying to track their carbon footprint, it can come as a shock to learn just how bad for the environment home-delivered food can be.
A UK study published by energy company Uswitch found that the carbon footprint of households that spend €50 a week on takeaway food is up to 450 per cent higher than that of households that do not have groceries delivered. It’s not hard to understand why – take-out food has traditionally come in single-use plastic containers, and its convenience comes at a cost to the environment.
It’s a problem that exploded during the lockdown as many restaurants and retail outlets jumped into the delivery business. At the same time, more and more of us got to know the various apps that allow you to order hot food straight to your door. But as public awareness of the climate crisis and the importance of sustainability grows, change is coming to the sector.
A growing number of fast food delivery companies are trying to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Earlier this year, Thai food specialist Camile Thai began including carbon counting information on its menus in Ireland, working with UK company My Emissions to rate each dish.
It now labels its foods on a scale from “A” (very low) to “E” (very high) in terms of carbon intensity per kilogram of the food. The system measures the impact of each finished dish, taking into account the agricultural methods used to produce the ingredients, the processing, packaging, and transportation to the restaurant, as well as the cooking and transportation of that dish to the customer.
And it turns out that some dishes are better for the environment than others. Dishes rated “E” on Camile Thai’s menu are mostly those containing beef, reflecting the fact that this is the most energy-intensive protein to grow. Tofu is rated “A,” but for those who choose to eat meat, both chicken (rated “B”) and shrimp (rated “C”) are more environmentally friendly.
“The idea is not to preach to people, just give them more information. For example, from a commercial perspective, we don’t take away anyone’s choice – you can still buy the dishes you want – but if that’s a priority for you, you can now make a more informed choice,” says Daniel Greene, Managing Director of Camile Thai Ireland.
“People are often unaware of the carbon footprint of the food they consume, but swapping beef for tofu in our green curry, for example, saves more emissions than a single train journey from London to Paris.”
Greene says this shift to the carbon-counting Camile Thai menu was long-planned and first discussed internally in 2013. The company was the first to introduce calorie counts on menus and also wanted to add CO2 counts, but it took time to find a partner who could do the measurement and certify the results.
“We think that’s the kind of thing that consumers want to know. We’re the first to do this, but we really hope we won’t be the last. We’d love to see others pick it up and normalize it. We’ve also switched to all compostable packaging to try to eradicate this issue from our business as well,” he says.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than pumping out thousands of foil containers and plastic bags every day that are destined to end up in landfills. Food production is a big topic in terms of sustainability. It accounts for a large percentage of all carbon emissions, and while what we do is a small thing, that’s not the point. If everyone did their part, it would make a big difference.”
Camile Thai is not trying to advocate for a change in consumer habits, but to make it easier for people to make decisions about their own carbon footprint if they choose to do so. So how was it received? Are consumers willing or even interested in counting CO2 when they eat a tasty meal?
“To be honest, it’s still a bit early to tell. We launched it earlier this year and it’s still being integrated into our stores here and on our app. It’s going to take a little longer for people to get used to, but we’ve had a tremendous response from pretty much everyone who’s heard about it. The feedback from social media has been consistently positive,” says Greene.
“I think time will tell if it’s something that’s growing and spreading. We want others in the industry to adopt it too, so we don’t hide who we do for us, so we’d love for others to do the same.”
It remains to be seen whether carbon counting will catch on, but major food suppliers are well aware that sustainability is an issue close to consumers’ hearts. Late last year, Jitse Groen, Just Eat’s CEO, made a public pledge to bring the company to a carbon-neutral or “net-zero” position by 2030.
To achieve this, Just Eat will review the energy efficiency of its buildings, convert all offices to green energy and convert the entire corporate fleet to electric vehicles.
“Sustainability is hugely important to us around the world and here in Ireland. It’s something that has influenced us in terms of the packaging we use, trying to use green energy and optimizing our heating systems – basically we’ve been looking for every possible way to improve this aspect of our work.” says John Carey, Marketing Director at Just Eat Ireland.
“We think that everyone, as individuals and as a company, has to do something about it. This is where it gets critical and we all have to play our part. We also know these things matter to consumers.”
Carey points to a recent study by Kantar from 2021, which showed that 83 percent of consumers think about the environment when making purchases and 67 percent are more likely to shop from brands that reduce their carbon footprint.
“So as a company we have a social responsibility to take this seriously, but we also have an economic responsibility. People care and we need to reflect that. Covid has changed our habits when it comes to ordering groceries – there has been a huge increase in demand and although things have calmed down a little, we believe some of that change will remain,” he says. “And while that’s great, more business means greater impact and we need to make up for that when we can.”
When Groen made his “net zero” pledge, he pointed out that more than two billion takeaway containers are thrown away in the EU every year and that single-use plastics account for almost half of all man-made waste polluting the oceans. In addition, one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and food production.
“During Covid, food delivery became a ritual for many people. It was a form of escape from having to cook everything yourself during lockdown and getting someone to the door became a pleasure. It’s holding up for a bit, but we’re also seeing people becoming more health and environmentally conscious since Covid,” says Carey.
“For example, our vegetarian and vegan ranges have expanded massively, and they are part of our sustainability program. Animal protein tends to be quite resource-intensive in terms of cultivation, while vegan and vegetarian products tend to have a smaller footprint.”
An interesting development in the field of delivered groceries since Covid is that during lockdown many people have become more familiar with the various apps and online ordering systems that have popped up and now that they are back in the office, Carey says they are have started ordering more lunches and breakfasts where they might not have been before.
“Things are evolving and the pace of life for many people is starting to pick up and they have picked up some new habits along with it. For example, convenience food shopping is something that is definitely growing,” he says.
Most of Just Eat’s packaging is eco-friendly, but later this summer the company plans to introduce Notpla into its packaging. This plastic substitute is made from brown algae and is best known for biodegrading in just four to six weeks.
“What we use is plastic-free and made from recycled materials, but Notpla is a step forward. We use it in the UK for Just Eat takeaway boxes and it works great.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/food-drink/carbon-counting-how-your-friday-night-takeaway-is-affecting-the-environment-41857813.html Carbon counting: How your Friday night snack is impacting the environment