We all love the convenience of a takeaway — but how many of us think about what our Friday-night treat is doing to the planet? From carbon-rated menus to packaging, we speak to two companies trying to offset the environmental impact of fast-food deliveries
For many people, a takeaway on a Friday or Saturday night is a treat they feel they’ve earned after cooking and washing up all week. But for those attempting to watch their carbon footprint, it can be 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 spending €50 a week on takeaways is up to 450pc higher than those that don’t get food delivered. The reason isn’t hard to understand — takeaway food traditionally comes in single-use plastic containers, and its convenience comes with a cost to the environment.
It’s a problem that exploded during lockdown as many restaurants and retail food outlets entered the delivery business. At the same time, more of us got familiar with the various apps that can be used to order hot food directly to our 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 seeking to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Earlier this year, Thai food specialist Camile Thai started including carbon-counting information on its menus in Ireland, partnering with UK company My Emissions to rate each dish.
It now labels its food 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 farming methods used to produce the ingredients, the processing that goes into them, along with packaging and transport to the restaurant, and then the cooking and transportation of that dish to the customer.
And it turns out some dishes are better than others for the environment. Dishes rated ‘E’ on Camile Thai’s menu are mostly those that include beef, reflecting the fact that this is the most energy-intensive protein to farm. Tofu is ‘A’-rated, but for those who want to eat meat, both chicken (‘B’-rated) and prawns (‘C’-rated) are more planet friendly.
“The idea isn’t to be too preachy to people, just to give them more information. From a commercial perspective for example, we’re not taking away anyone’s choices — you can still buy the dishes you want — but rather, if this is a priority for you, now you can make a more informed choice,” says Daniel Greene, managing director of Camile Thai Ireland.
“Often people don’t realise the carbon footprint of the food they consume, but, for example, if you swap out beef for tofu in our green curry, it saves more emissions than a single train journey from London to Paris.”
Greene says this move to carbon-count Camile Thai’s menu has been long planned and was first discussed internally in 2013. The company was the first to introduce calorie counts on menus and wanted to add carbon counts too, but it took some time to find a partner that could do the measuring and certify the results.
“We think this is the kind of thing that consumers want to know. We’re the first to do it, but we really hope we’re not the last. We’d love to see others take it up and normalise it. We’ve also moved to all compostable packaging to try to eradicate that issue from our business too,” 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 landfill sites. Food production is a huge issue in terms of sustainability. It makes up a huge percentage of all carbon emissions, and while what we’re doing is just one small thing, that’s not the point. If everyone did their bit, it would make a big difference.”
Camile Thai isn’t trying to lobby for change in consumer habits but rather make it easier for people to make decisions around their own carbon footprints if they want to. So how has it been received? Are consumers ready, or even interested, in carbon counting when they’re having a treat meal?
“To be honest, it’s a bit early to say. We launched this at the start of the year, and it’s still being integrated into our businesses here and in our app. It’ll take a bit more time for people to become familiar with it, but we’ve had a tremendous response from pretty much anyone who’s heard about it. Social-media feedback has been uniformly positive,” says Greene.
“I think time will tell whether it’s something that will grow and spread. We want others in the industry to take it up too, so we’re not hiding who we got to do it for us, so we’d love others to do the same thing.”
While it remains to be seen whether carbon counting will catch on, the big food delivery companies are definitely aware that sustainability is an issue that consumers care about. Late last year, Jitse Groen, the chief executive of Just Eat, made a public commitment to take the company to a carbon-neutral or ‘net zero’ position by 2030.
To achieve this, Just Eat will look at the energy efficiency of its buildings, switch all its offices to green energy, and switch all of its corporate fleet to electric vehicles.
“Sustainability is massively important to us around the world and here in Ireland. It’s something that has impacted us in terms of the packaging we use, trying to use green energy and optimising our heating systems — basically, we’ve looked at every way we can think of to improve this aspect of what we do,” says John Carey, head of marketing for Just Eat Ireland.
“We think that, as individuals and as companies, this is something that everyone has to step up for. Things are getting critical at this point, and we all have to do our bit. We also know that these things are important to consumers.”
Carey points to recent research by Kantar in 2021 that showed that 83pc of consumers think about the environment when making a purchase, and 67pc are more likely to purchase from brands reducing their carbon footprint.
“So, as a company, we have a social responsibility to take this seriously, but also we have a commercial responsibility too. People care about this and we need to reflect that. Covid changed our habits around ordering in food — there was enormous growth in demand, and while things have calmed a little, we think some of that change is here to stay,” he says. “And while that’s great, increased business means increased impact, and we have to offset that if we can.”
When Groen made his ‘net zero’ pledge, he pointed out that more than two billion takeaway containers were thrown away in the EU each year, and that single-use plastic made up almost half of all the human-made waste polluting the oceans. On top of this, one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from farming and food production.
“During Covid, getting food delivered became a bit of a ritual for a lot of people. It was a form of escape from cooking everything yourself during lockdown, and having someone come to the door became a treat. That’s persisting a little, but we’re also seeing people becoming more health- and planet-conscious since Covid too,” says Carey.
“For example, our vegetarian and vegan ranges have extended massively, and those are part of our sustainability programme. Animal protein is usually quite intensive in terms of the resources used to farm it, while vegan and vegetarian products tend to have a lower footprint.”
An interesting development in the delivered food sector since Covid is that, during lockdown, many people became familiar with the various apps and online ordering systems that appeared, and now that they’re back in the office, Carey says they’ve started ordering more lunches and breakfasts where maybe they wouldn’t have before.
“Things are evolving, and the pace of life is starting to increase for a lot of people, and they’ve taken some new habits with them as that happens. For example, shopping for convenience groceries is something that is definitely growing,” he says.
The majority of Just Eat’s packaging is environmentally friendly but, later this summer, the company aims to introduce Notpla to its packaging. This plastic substitute is made from brown seaweed, and its chief claim to fame is that it’s made to biodegrade in just four-to-six weeks.
“What we’re using is free from plastics and is made from recycled materials, but Notpla is a step up. We’re using it in the UK for Just Eat takeaway boxes and it’s performing excellently.”