The negative effects of food delivery: From pollution to malnutrition

The convenience makes it a success, but its effects on society are not very positive: little sustainability, a lot of waste, ghost kitchens, unhealthy and repetitive menus, and more isolation

A delivery worker carries a take-away food order outside a mall in Beijing on June 20, 2022.
A delivery worker carries a take-away food order outside a mall in Beijing on June 20, 2022.WANG ZHAO (AFP)

Eating is a vital necessity; ordering food delivery, an invention of the modern human with a certain budget. If going to a restaurant entails “living an experience,” with home deliveries the food turns into a fast service known precisely as Food as a Service.

It’s a new market, still with legal loopholes and a lot of development ahead, but its effects are beginning to show, for better and for worse. Industrial kitchens right next to houses and schools, with the danger and inconvenience that it entails; delivery people often clogging the streets with vehicles that pollute; cloned menus because not all preparations and ingredients generate a profit; and a reformulation of the architecture of the restaurants that opt for mixed models are some of the consequences of the boom in food delivery.

More containers, more pollution

For starters, ordering food through an app takes a toll on the planet. In fact, the carbon footprint is much higher than we might think; Australian scientists estimated that just the single-use packaging of all deliveries made in that country during 2019 came to a whopping 5,600 tons of CO2 per year.

Per type of food, the classic menu of hamburger, fries, and soda, produces twice as many greenhouse gases as a Chinese menu. Wrapping paper, plastic packaging for the condiments and the straw for the soda are also to blame for such a disaster. However, they are essential. “You cover the part of the restaurant experience with the packaging. That box is your brand image. You can’t compete with crappy packaging,” explains José Valenzuela, co-founder of Grupo Mox, a last-mile service provider, in Eva Ballarín’s documentary Food as a Service. Anyone who wants to make an impact has to start by investing some dough in a cool design for the boxes (you’re dead if they’re not instagrammable), in the social media image (forget about posting bad mobile photos with three hashtags), and in online marketing.

The road traffic situation doesn’t look any better: having hundreds or thousands of motorcycles delivering food every day is already known among its detractors as the “delivery chaos.” If they are not electric, they contribute to the air and noise pollution. But the delivery people already face a tough competition that could turn the image of cities upside down: robots and drones. Powered by renewable energies and with no union affiliations or sick days off, the delivery robots promise punctuality. Even in circumstances where humans wouldn’t. “They are zero emissions and they never abandon an order,” Starship managers emphasize at every technology fair they attend. They imply that, even during the worst LA heat waves, their units continue to deliver, unfazed, when humans would stop pedaling to avoid death by heat stroke. As dystopian as it sounds, they are already operating on numerous American university campuses, as well as in several cities in Finland and England.

In the English city of Milton Keynes they began to operate in 2018. By the end of last year –according to the company– they had saved the municipality 137 tons of CO2 and 22 kilos of nitrogen oxide. “And one trip consumes the same as a kettle when preparing a cup of tea,” added Volker Beckers, an environmental advisor to the British government who’s delighted with the delivery contraptions.

Drones still have some way to go. Their main obstacles are the wind, the complex urban orography that makes landing difficult and the restrictions on flying gadgets prowling through the neighborhoods. Still, Flytrex already operates in some American cities with drones that are electric and autonomous, that is, with no humans at the helm. “They fly at 51 km/h. That’s enough to be in your patio in five minutes, without your ice cream melting or your coffee getting cold,” the company explains. The advantages are clear: each drone emits 94% less CO2 than a fossil-fueled land vehicle, and they contribute to decongesting traffic. In a few years, rush hour in the sky could look like a scene from Futurama, but that’s a whole other matter.

Urbanism is not spared, either

From the perspective of urban planning and the analysis of the housing environment, the phenomenon of food delivery is observed with interest. Magda Mària and Nuria Ortigosa are part of Habitar, a research group at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) that analyzes how lifestyle changes alter the urban landscape. “A relocation of the purchase and consumption of prepared food is taking place. You can order food from any private or public place and consume it there despite it having been cooked somewhere else. You can even eat it in a park, or on any street.”

“As a consequence of this, there is a significant increase in food scraps and packaging that forces public spending on cleaning and collection services to increase.” The interior of the houses also changes. “There could be a minimization of the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be seen as something negative, but rather as a response to more immediate habits of society.” They mention changes in furniture, a decrease of the necessary equipment for cooking and serving, and a greater informality in the act of eating, which extends to other rooms in the house.

Attack of the clone menus

There is an unyielding law in restaurants according to which a person doesn’t spend more than two minutes reading the menu. Stuffing it with dozens of dishes only confuses the diner, who’s unable to recall the dishes from the beginning when they reach the end. In addition, this would force you to keep a huge and varied pantry in order to accommodate so much variety. Large platforms, however, reward very long menus, positioning those restaurants better.

Those who are gullible enough to fall for that end up buried under menus that are unmanageable under the speed required by a model that demands that an order be ready in four minutes or less. “Better to have a short, well-crafted menu, that you can execute within that time,” explain Carlos Medina and Tomi Soriano, creators of Two Many Chefs.

Seduced by the promises of the big platforms, many restaurants go to extremes with menus that are as varied as they are unnecessary. “You need to buy a lot of raw material. If you don’t sell it, it’ll go to hell in a matter of days. Or you’re forced to have large refrigerators, with the added cost of electricity. If you sell a product that is not at its optimum point, you can say goodbye to the client,” they warn.

First and second-class diners

The big brands have so-called dark or ghost kitchens that prepare online orders exclusively. But many other restaurants are unable to bear the cost of an additional kitchen, so they decide to work on both the in-house and the delivery orders from their own kitchen. “It’s a mistake. Your kitchen is the right size to serve your room at full capacity. If you also intend to deal with the deliveries, which you know implies serving in a hurry, you will end up delaying the orders in the room. You want to broaden your market, and you end up cannibalizing the one you already have in operation,” warn in unison the Two Many Chefs. By trying to get on the online ordering bandwagon, where the margins are lower, they end up losing the physical customer.

Sharing, or isolating?

People over 50 are increasingly ordering food at home, according to Kantar. This sector of the population, with greater purchasing power, is also more demanding in terms of seriousness, punctuality or the form of delivery. This seems like a double-edged sword: on one hand, it would bring variety to the diet of people whose children have moved out and find it tedious to cook for themselves. But it could aggravate the problem of loneliness or social isolation among the elderly, who, not having to go out to buy food or to eat, could spend days without any social contact.

Among the younger crowd, 95% of the times the food is ordered to share – with a significant other, friends or family – according to a study carried out by We Are Testers. “I don’t think we’re heading towards a society that prefers to eat alone at home. As soon as there’s one ray of sun, we go nuts looking for a terrace to meet some friends! Sharing food and talk is in our DNA. You say that there are gamers that don’t leave the house and only eat food that’s delivered to their door? Well, there were also addicted gamers in the 1990′s, and they ate sandwiches,” say the Two Many Chefs.

What has changed is when and why food is ordered. In the documentary Food as a Service, Eva Ballarin notes that, while food used to be ordered when there was a sports game or when one was having friends over and didn’t feel like cooking, customers increasingly opt for home deliveries as a substitute for the fridge, the pantry and the kitchen. After all, having your lunch delivered to your office is much more comfortable than preparing a container every morning. That trend eats through 13 to 14.6% of a person’s budget, which is to say, it makes a considerable dent on their savings capacity.

The architecture of restaurants will also change. Burger King is planning to reduce the seating capacity of their restaurants and increase the parking space and the car waiting area around the establishment. There even are plans to set up automatic delivery boxes where you can pick up your order without waiting in line.

A varied diet is not profitable

“In order to generate a profit, every dish must always have the same ingredients and in the same amounts. This often forces us to choose the fresh products that best withstand transportation and have the best availability throughout the year. For example, iceberg lettuce is widely used because it stays crunchy for longer, even if it’s not the tastiest variety, nor the most nutritious,” says Yolanda Sala, member emeritus of the Spanish Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And don’t even talk about incorporating local and seasonal varieties, because it would imply changing prices or photos.

Sala mentions another uncomfortable truth that is barely talked about: food safety. “To keep microorganisms from proliferating, food should be kept above 65-67 degrees (Celsius) or below five, and then reheated at home. And always in isothermal containers. Hardly anyone does it, because it’s more expensive. They carry cooler bags, but they open them constantly to make deliveries, making it impossible to maintain the right temperature,” she explains. This is precisely the reason why everyone agrees to deliver in less than 30 minutes: beyond that time, the menu could come with a side of salmonella.

Which trend will triumph? What mark will it leave on society? It is still too early to tell. But who knows: maybe the archaeologists of the future, instead of amphorae and crockery, will only be able to find ketchup packets and plastic containers.

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