Zomato, Swiggy and food delivery in the age of plastics

Deep in the recesses of GPRA Complex, New Moti Bagh—an upscale, gated colony for civil servants—lies a sewage treatment and waste management plant. This is Delhi’s first zero-waste area, run by Green Planet Waste Management (GPWM).

Smack dab between GPWM’s wastewater treatment and composting centres is a shed where non-recyclable plastic herded from GPRA Complex is turned to oil. This is done through a process called pyrolysis. It’s where the dankest plastic goes to die: milk packets, water bottle labels, torn, oil-stained styrofoam, and dust-laden carry bags. 

About 10% of the daily 50-odd kilos of plastic fed to this pyrolysis plant are disposable trays, food pouches, and cutlery, the kind Rajesh Mittal has seen more of in recent years thanks to food delivery.

“It’s only around 10% here because this is a high-end colony and every household has a cook,” says a bespectacled Mittal, GPWM’s managing director. “You’ll see more food containers in places like Noida, or places with a relatively higher younger, unmarried demographic. The kind of plastic generated varies from area to area and the local demographic.”

You probably know this now: we’re living in what environmentalists dub ‘The Plasticene’ (Age of plastic). Plastic, relative to metal and paper, is a young material, first finding form as Bakelite in 1907 and gaining ground because of the exigencies of war. Its affordability, portability, and disposability, once our boons, are now banes bar none. As of 2017, the world produced 350 million tonnes of plastic (excluding PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate—reusable packaging mostly for liquids).

And in an increasingly-tired world, where longer working hours marry technology and birth convenience, food containers are the new delinquents. As per a 2018 study published in science journal Elsevier, door-to-door food delivery in China accounted for a nearly-eightfold jump in packaging waste in just two years, from 0.2 million tonnes (2015) to 1.5 million tonnes (2017). Closer home, in India, we don’t know how much plastic we generate. That’s because the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) underreports such data. But we can hazard some guesses with food delivery.

In October 2018, restaurant discovery and food delivery service Zomato claimed to fulfil 23 million monthly food orders. Its rival Swiggy, which does not disclose monthly order numbers, is believed to fulfil up to 28 million orders as of March 2019. This amounts to thousands and thousands of tonnes of food container and cutlery waste, at the least. 

Small wonder then that Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bengaluru’s civic body, wants to ban plastic food containers. Bans on single-use plastics in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, are ineffectual due to inconsistent implementation. In a bid to seem self-aware, Zomato introduced an opt-out feature for customers to avoid plastic cutlery. Swiggy, on the other hand, put the ball in the court of restaurants with its Swiggy Packaging Assist (SPA) platform, which aims to offer more eco-friendly packaging options.

For all its cheapness, plastic is a complex material. To understand how culpable food delivery is or isn’t in its propagation, we need to enter the proverbial ant farm to observe how aggregation, customer ratings, policy blindness, waste monetisation, and plastic colouring come together to create an endless maze of muck.

Sit tight.

Touch and go

Launched in September 2018, SPA is a marketplace where restaurants can bulk-buy food containers, cutlery, and bags. At the time, media pegged it as a move to encourage sustainable packaging, including trays made from bagasse and corn starch. Eateries buying eco-friendly or recyclable items from vendors on SPA get a 5% discount on these purchases. Virtuosity in itself needn’t be questioned. But gilded virtuosity should. And that’s because plastic containers and trays are not just available, but more visible on SPA.

SPA is available in seven of 200 cities Swiggy operates in, meaning any eco-friendly benefits are considerably limited in geographic scope. The argument can be made that packaging vendors may not be present in all 44 cities to facilitate SPAs mission. Also, it makes business sense to focus on metros. But this brings another hiccup to the fore: price.

Plastic trays and containers on SPA range from Rs 2-10 (approximately) per unit. Paper boxes, Rs 3-7 per unit. A ream of parchment paper costs Rs 2,138. A 300ml glass bottle is Rs 11.50. At the time of last checking the SPA site, bagasse-based packaging was only available in one location—Chennai—while corn starch trays weren’t available at all.

Swiggy Packaging Assist’s landing page offers different packaging options for partner restaurants to chose from

Now, consider Swiggy’s most-ordered items. The company’s 2018 StatEASTistics report, which analyses food trends among its orders, revealed that Indian food, specifically, biryani, is most popular. Apart from biryani, this consists mostly of gravies, often oily and spice-laden, which are usually delivered in plastic containers since they hold up better against these culinary elements. South Indian breakfasts, often with accompaniments packaged in thin, non-recyclable pouches, are also popular. 

Paper boxes, meanwhile, are used for pizzas, sandwiches, and burgers, none of which surface among the most popular foods on Swiggy. Zomato reports similar numbers. North Indian food accounts for 50% of the total order volume. South Indian food another 15%, followed by Chinese at 10-15%. Stacked up, 75% of orders favour cuisines prone to spillage and served piping hot.

One Bengaluru-based founder of an inventory management platform said that managing costs was a higher priority than being eco-friendly. “Packaging alone can account for 10% per unit food cost,” he explained, adding that returns, cancellations and discounts offered by platforms leave little margin for an eatery to buy expensive eco-friendly material. 

“India currently uses 14 million tons [of plastic] annually which will grow to 25 million tons by 2025. Packaging is a fast growing segment for foods, industry, and pharma packaging. This will remain; there’s no alternative here”

Hiten Bheda, Former President, AIPMA

“There’s no sense paying premiums [for eco-friendly alternatives] if few customers care for packaging in lieu of convenience,” he adds. Having run a cloud kitchen, he requested anonymity to avoid upsetting peers in the food delivery business.

Swiggy declined to respond to The Ken’s questionnaire on SPA. Instead, a spokesperson said Swiggy was working to improve the design and recyclability of packaging solutions. Hundreds of restaurant partners across cities (with or without the plastic ban), the spokesperson added, have started using greener packaging solutions when possible. Like Zomato, Swiggy is introducing an opt-out feature for disposable cutlery.

Supporting a switch

The Bengaluru entrepreneur had a point about customers prioritising convenience over eco-friendliness. Eateries will only use non-plastic packaging if it’s more accessible and can withstand heat and messiness. Without this, customers won’t care. If anything, Indian food delivery services have been in a bind due to fevered complaints about spillage and food tampering.

Cue more tape, Ziploc bags, and containers.

There’s much to be said about the average Indian customer on food delivery platforms. Plastic is an eyesore, and while the clogging of our rivers or choking marine life causes distress, we don’t hesitate to ask for an extra plastic fork or spoon. Some even ask for extra containers. Because eateries providing more plastic cutlery are perceived as offering more value. “The opt-out choice for plastic cutlery was a fight against this ‘extra is good’ mentality,” says Rakesh Ranjan, vice president of Zomato’s delivery business. 

But what percentage of Zomato’s customers actually opt-out? “Very early two digits,” is all Ranjan offers.

Zomato, too, offers packaging solutions to restaurants, but it’s more customised than SPA. It categorises restaurants as platinum, gold, silver, base, and ‘risk’ based on customer ratings. Packaging is an important criterion for ratings. Consequently, spill-proof, tamperproof, reusable, or aesthetic packaging fetches restaurants better ratings. More often than not, this means plastic.

Zomato encourages platinum- or gold-tier restaurants to choose eco-friendly alternatives by offering a 20% off on cornstarch clamshell boxes and bamboo materials. This treatment doesn’t extend to lower-tier restaurants. While the top two tiers only account for 30% of partner restaurants, they handle 80-90% of Zomato’s orders, explains Ranjan. It’s a fortunate overlap and one Zomato uses to its advantage to promote its sustainability store.

“I’d rather work with a Cafe Coffee Day than your local neighbourhood eatery. Because Coffee Day already pays attention to its packaging. Asking them to switch to sustainable materials is easier,” he says. So far, Zomato had been importing plastic substitutes from China at a hefty cost. A long feedback loop with the manufacturers, and almost a 35-40% cost difference has Zomato looking for alternatives in India.

An in-house team of designers, vendor managers and engineers, says Ranjan, is working with Indian manufacturers to re-design packaging solutions for hot, gravy-based food. Though cheaper, this custom approach has its limitations. Ranjan admits to still featuring plastic containers, straws and trays—albeit ones more than 50 microns thick and more recyclable. Virgin plastic—which contains only one type of plastic—is on the shelf as well, in addition to cornstarch and bamboo-based materials.

Despite their non-plastic food packaging solutions, Zomato and Swiggy’s rating ecosystems prioritise packaging condition rather than eco-friendliness. And yet, they can’t be held by the collar, because this is also what customers care about. Materials design, still relatively nascent in India, hasn’t given us affordable, hardy, plastic-free delivery alternatives.

All of this is compounded because the many plastic bans by various Indian states don’t do nearly enough.

Bogus bans

Starting in 2009 with Himachal Pradesh, India’s tryst with plastic bans is almost a decade old. In the intervening years, versions of the same ban—on single-use plastic, plastic cutlery, cups, containers—have popped up in 25 states.

A recent 2018 ban in Maharashtra on plastic bags, which also extended to food packaging, came down like a hammer on e-commerce companies. Zomato and Swiggy were in the trenches with Amazon, Flipkart and a host of restaurants now stuck with no packaging options. The reaction to the ban made two things clear. One, it was a knee-jerk reaction to a deep-seated, complex problem. And two, the likes of Zomato and Swiggy realise they have skin in the game since these bans make their everyday business harder. 

Jurisdictionally, however, food aggregators don’t feature on the food chain of responsibility, says Ravi Agarwal, founder of Toxics Link, a Delhi-based, nonprofit think-tank. Even restaurants are a stretch since Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) guidelines mostly apply to FMCG brands. EPR guidelines are a global policy measure that makes brands financially responsible for collecting and treating their plastic products after use by customers. 

Agarwal has been pushing for the use of more sustainable and less toxic materials in consumer items like paint, electronics and most recently plastic. In 2016, he was part of the drafting committee on Plastic Waste Management Rules. Facing pushback from brands on EPR guidelines, little more than diaphanous plastic bags came under scrutiny. So whether establishments are procuring and using “food grade” plastic is difficult to answer. “Also, EPR extends to branded packaging. With unbranded stuff, who knows what toxicity levels they have?” says Agarwal.

Still, the bans keep coming. Despite being highly unenforceable, especially in the food and beverage industry, 80% of which, says Ravi Wazir, is unorganised. Wazir is a restaurant and food business consultant. He adds that culturally, India’s food preferences range from street-food and local eateries to fancy, high-end restaurants. This makes scrutiny of food grade packaging material almost impossible to do. Wazir, a member of several national restaurant associations, agrees that without proper enforcement, packaging compliance by food joints is uncommon.

It doesn’t help that authorities have limited manpower and expertise to catch anyone in the act. “In Maharashtra, you had police inspectors trying to book restaurants for flouting norms. But what these norms are, no one’s quite sure,” says Agarwal. 

To be fair, these norms—created by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)—aren’t easy to monitor. FSSAI, inspired by a 2017 draft of World Trade Organisation (WTO) packaging regulations on Food Safety and Standards, passed its own version in 2018. The document defines food grade as materials safe for packing food and which won’t change the composition of the food they carry. The regulations list standards for almost every possible material for food packaging, mentioning 20 different standards for plastic alone.

Additionally, there’s a chemical-wise breakdown of specific ‘migration limits’ for plastic that comes in contact with food. This means that there is a cap (measured in milligrams/kilogram of food) on materials released from the container into the food it’s carrying. The limit on barium, for instance, is 1 mg/kg, whereas iron’s limit is 48mg/kg.

These regulations are as detailed as they are obtuse. To the untrained eye, any transgressions of these packaging rules would be impossible to catch. “Everyone is excited about banning plastic. But can any of the deployed officers tell what is food grade-quality plastic?” asks Wazir. Making matters worse, FSSAI’s involvement stops at creating regulations. The onus of implementation is left to individual states. According to one report, Delhi’s food safety department had only three active inspectors for over 50,000 establishments in 2015.

No entry

The Indian government has aimed to cease all imports of plastic waste into the country by August 2019. Imports of PE and PET waste had increased by 50% between 2016 and 2017. India’s ban comes after China stopped the import of plastic waste to its shores

With authorities unable to keep pace, platforms like Zomato are also not in a position to check things like composition or migration rates of plastic containers. “If we find restaurants packing food in really low-grade plastic, then they’re an automatic reject,” clarifies Ranjan.

Wazir doesn’t want food aggregator platforms policing restaurants. For him, it’s more about self-regulation for restaurants owners and creating awareness for smaller, local vendors. He’s quick to emphasise the harsh business realities at play. A premium milkshake outlet, for example, can charge extra for glass bottles, but not every food operator will be able to absorb the cost, he says. Rather, it’s the customer who will bear the cost of knee-jerk, blanket bans.

The definition, or rather identification, of food grade plastic remains stuck in no man’s land. Ultimately, without any clear chain of responsibility, or easier explanation of standards, plastics will abound in the food packaging sector.

This shifts the onus from production and enforcement squarely back onto recycling.

Plastic’s true colours

Back in Delhi, GPWM’s Rajesh Mittal claims to incur monthly losses of about Rs 3 lakh ($4,320) recycling the colony’s plastic waste. Mittal says his 500-square metre facility could host enough equipment to process a tonne of plastic waste daily. The capacity of the existing unit is 200kg, but it’s being fed only 50kg. His request to process garbage from outside the colony was declined.

“We weren’t even being paid for our services until two years ago when we threatened to shut shop,” he shakes his head. Just then, two handcarts filled with cardboard boxes, containers, bags, and other garbage, arrive at the facility. Mittal points out that while residents have separate bins for waste segregation, segregation is rare. His employees, as a result, spend a large part of their day sifting through plastic.

The disposability of plastic and the collective indifference towards segregation has ensured plastic waste doesn’t fetch money. Why would waste collectors collect plastic that only fetches around Rs 3 ($0.04) a kilo? This is important, as no discussion of plastic generation by the food delivery juggernauts is complete without talking about the kinds of plastic and the monetisation of waste.

BBMP’s special commissioner of solid waste management, D Randeep, wants food containers banned because they’re “single-use disposables”. However, Indians tend to reuse these, and they also command higher prices than disposable trays and cutlery, which have no value for waste collectors.

And yet, there’s a kicker. If Mittal is to be believed, black food containers, the kind food delivery has made ubiquitous, have a resale value of Rs 5 per kilo at most. If this is the good stuff, think about how truly worthless styrofoam is.

“Black containers rarely sell at higher rates because the material is thinner. This is why restaurants bulk-buy them to cut costs. Black plastic is also a great way to hide defects that’d otherwise be spotted in clear and white containers,” says Hiten Bheda, former president of All India Plastics Manufacturers’ Association (AIPMA).

Think back to when you ordered food before the advent of delivery apps. The containers you got, in all likelihood, were either white or clear. Black food containers have flooded the delivery market, but there’s no India-specific data to determine how much.

“Black plastic [food containers] contains carbon black and other dyes. We can’t rule out the danger posed by black food containers in India, but we also can’t prove how toxic they are, yet,”

Suneel Pandey, TERI

A 2018 study by University of Plymouth scientists found that recycled black plastic, mostly used for food storage, is choc-full of heavy metal and flame retardants. Black container microplastics are suspected to leach into food. But, says Suneel Pandey, director of the Environment & Waste Management Division at TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), there isn’t enough research to determine how likely hot gravies or meals are to trigger leaching. “Such plastic also contains carbon black and other dyes. We can’t rule out the danger posed by black food containers in India, but we also can’t prove how toxic they are, yet,” he stresses.

This quandary magnifies the task ahead of the FSSAI, whose 2018 packaging regulations specify plastic migration limits for just seven contaminants. There are stipulations for carbon black under IS:9833 standards for colourants, too, but no way of knowing how many manufacturers adhere to this. Not all food containers even have the IS marking at their base. Pray tell, what is food grade, and what isn’t?

Lalit Agrawal is the director of Glen Industries Pvt Ltd, a Kolkata-based plastics manufacturer. In a telephonic interview, he rubbishes claims that black plastic is an inexpensive way to hide material defects. All storage containers made in his facility, he adds, pass food contact thresholds. “Black containers first became popular abroad because they simply look better than milky and clear plastics,” he counters.

Glen Industries is export-driven, selling 30% in the domestic market. Of this, only 3% is accounted for by eateries. That’s still an average of 30 lakh units monthly. “Everyone just wants black. Judging by how things are going, I foresee double demand,” mulls Agrawal.

Manufacturer, restaurant, aggregator, regulatory body, municipal corporation. Just where does the ‘food grade plastic’ conundrum begin… and end?

Sweet spot

Definitely not with food delivery services.

“There is no clear definition of food grade packaging material passed down by the FSSAI,” says Zomato’s Ranjan. Does a roll wrapped in paper, and covered in plastic (not touching the food) make the cut? Ranjan says he understands the minimum 50-micron rule and asks partner restaurants to follow that regulation. There isn’t much platforms can do beyond that.

Zomato’s instead chosen positive incentives to trigger voluntary action by partner restaurants. “Do we penalise them for sending cutlery even though the customer opted-out? No. It would create issues on both sides,” says Ranjan. Similarly, Zomato isn’t inclined to push its partners towards more sustainable packaging, leaving it to economies of scale and technology to produce more cost-effective and sturdier packaging. 

While Agarwal, of Toxics Link, believes that these well-funded platforms have enough leverage and heft to influence a greener, more sustainable packaging channel, food aggregators are loath to push for disincentives that might hurt order volumes. 

Wazir, on the other hand, doesn’t even consider Zomato, Swiggy or any other platform as serious stakeholders in solving the plastic issue. “At best, these food delivery platforms can devise some kind of auditing process, like they did with food hygiene standards,” says Wazir. According to him, their measures are reduced to mere CSR photo-ops, because they’re neither manufacturers, food producers, part of the recycling industry or the customer. Other than being intermittent, unofficial inspectors, says Wazir, food aggregators are going to have little impact on reducing plastic waste.

While measures like notifying partner restaurants on the ‘opt-out’ option through a dashboard are easier to implement, cost and convenience make plastic-alternatives much harder to digest. The economics, without scale or support from the government, can easily snap and continue the flood of black, low-grade plastic containers. “At 1.6 items per order, at our order size, it’s just not viable to be completely plastic-free, even if we wanted to,” says Ranjan.

Aggregators are stuck in an awkward spot between arbitrary regulations on plastic containers, and a partner network that, at best, is extremely heterogeneous in its attitude towards reducing plastic waste at source. The lack of suitable alternatives makes the job even harder. By Zomato’s own account, plastic waste from online food delivery adds almost 22,000 metric tonnes to India’s garbage pile every month, most of which, they admit, is dumped sans recycling.

But the awkward position is also a sweet spot of sorts. Without any overarching regulation scrutinising them as food producers, aggregators are free to run experiments with plastic-alternatives and tiered incentive structures. And media buzz around their sustainability efforts to reduce plastic usage is just icing on the cake. These optics are great for Zomato and Swiggy, positioning them as woke leaders of an ever-expanding e-commerce universe. How much that’s preventing land-fills from overflowing or gutting marine life is another matter.

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