Truly eco-friendly packaging for food delivery

Through this series, I’m writing down some ideas I want to pursue when I am more than just financially independent.

I can work on them now, but I don’t think I have the risk-taking abilities that many entrepreneurs have, yet. I don’t have any expertise in these specific domains, so there’s a lot I need to learn to be comfortable enough to take decisions or build teams in these spaces before I pursue the ideas listed below.

Despite all that, I’m sometimes too excited about these ideas. So, I just wanted to put them out in the world and see what people think. So, here we go.

My first idea is around building and launching a truly eco-friendly food packaging material for food (especially, Indian food).

Everyday, delivery folks carry millions of food packages from restaurants to people’s homes. As Doordash, Swiggy and Zomato continue to launch in more cities and towns, eating in is only becoming more of a norm across the world.

However, it pains me to see food (especially, hot Indian food) packed in plastic containers for two reasons:

  • Most of these containers aren’t food-safe. There must be harmful chemicals leeching into hot Indian curries carried in these containers everyday. If not in the short term, they’re going to add up and cause poor health outcomes in the long run.
  • These packages end up in landfills, water sources or just get burnt. Landfills don’t solve any waste problems permanently. Burning these containers only releases toxic flames. If these plastic materials end up in waterways, they only come back to our dinner tables as microplastics, all over again.

I think there must be a transformation in how these foods are packed and delivered to reduce the negative impact these bring to the health of people and that of the earth.

I don’t have solutions, but only thoughts. I think eco-friendly and safe food packaging should meet the following needs:

  • Should be really affordable. Any new solution must be cost close to or cheaper than plastic. There’s no way you’re going to build something that’s eco-friendly and have restaurants adopt that invention without it being as cheap as plastic containers.
  • Should not leak. Plastic containers are great for this reason so replacing them with something like tiny mud pots isn’t going to work. You need something that doesn’t leak food despite the hundreds of bumps in Indian roads that the delivery person has to go through.
  • Should be truly eco friendly. Must have a reasonable time before which the container can naturally disintegrate into the environment, without harmful effluents. Many modern convenience inventions don’t decompose safely – they are just marketed as such.
  • Should work for different kinds of foods. Aluminium foil seems better than plastic, but doesn’t work for carrying wet curries, for example. Any new solution should work for solid and fluid food, hot and cold.
  • Should not dissolve into food. Unlike paper straws. This is a no-brainer.
  • Can be manufactured at scale. This one is obvious too, and perhaps should be on top. There are eco-friendly solutions that Indian folks have used for ages (think palm leaf packages for dry food) but we need something that can be produced at scale for it to effect meaningful change.

In the absence of a material that can meet these needs, the other choice that exists is using existing reasonably food-safe materials and building a logistics chain that can collect these containers back from people after they’re done with their meals. Think a system like what Dabbawaalas use, but in 1,000x the places and routes they operate in.

A logistics chain like this can minimize the production of food packaging units by thousands or millions and decrease the impact they have on the environment, even though we may not eliminate the waste that emerges entirely.

Accomplishing this at scale is not just challenging, but arguably more costly for food delivery services. These costs will have to be passed back to the consumer. These services, I assume, already operate on razor-thin margins and I suspect this may not be a viable option for them.

Besides, in such a world, consumers may have to be incentivized to return used containers. However, if the incentive is small enough, consumers may not even care to return them. And then you only end up producing more containers and never end up solving the actual problem in question (minimizing material production).

Maybe a penalty for not returning used food containers in such a world might help? But penalties lead to these food services being less appealing for consumers, so maybe these should be enforced through regulation?

Okay, I am going all over the place. But you get the idea – we need a way to stop all these plastic materials from going to the ground in a way that just damages things for ourselves and future generations. I just want to be less guilty and less paranoid when I order food in, the next time 🙂

Published by shankarganesh

Product manager. I solve problems that matter, make mistakes along the way, and learn from those mistakes. And then a year later, I come here to share what I've learned :)

One thought on “Truly eco-friendly packaging for food delivery

  1. Your idea of dubbawala is the only solution that I can think of today!! In order to implement sustainable dubbawala we can bring the deposition method while ordering food.

    Say of you are ordering Naan and paneer butter masala

    We can pack the liquid curries in dubbawala with the deposit amount.

    1 Naan = 40Rs
    1 paneer butter masala = 100Rs
    Refundable Dubba charges = 40Rs

    And when you return the Dubba in your next order we can cut the cost of the order or refund it back to the customer account.

    Not sure about the implementation though😛 just a random spark💡 when I read your very well written post👏🫡.


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