Sustainable Energy

Takeout firm hopes seaweed-lined boxes can help tackle food's plastic problem

Key Points
  • While online food platforms are becoming popular with the public, many of the restaurants that actually deliver the food are heavily reliant on plastic containers.
  • Given the takeout sector’s reliance on plastics, the question of what, if anything, can be done to limit their use is a pressing one.
The takeout sector has a big problem with plastic waste.
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Online food delivery business Just Eat, together with sustainable packaging firm Notpla, has developed what it describes as a "fully recyclable" takeout box lined with seaweed.

In an announcement Tuesday, Just Eat said the container was able to decompose in four weeks if put in a home compost. The seaweed-lined cardboard boxes are produced from tree and grass pulp, and contain no synthetic additives, according to the company.

The containers are being tested with three of Just Eat's "restaurant partners" in London. The trial will use 3,600 boxes and will last until they have all been sent out.

"Cardboard takeaway boxes either contain synthetic additives or are lined with plastic," Pierre Paslier, co-CEO of Notpla, said in a statement issued Tuesday. "With this box, we are offering a real plastic-free, naturally biodegradable option for the takeaway market," he added.

Launched in Denmark in 2001, Just Eat enables consumers to place online takeout orders with local restaurants using tech such as tablets, cellphones, computers and voice assistants.

The company says it has over 28 million "active customers" globally and, through several brands, operates in 13 countries across the world. Other firms in this sector include Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

While online food delivery platforms are becoming increasingly popular with the public, many of the restaurants that actually deliver the food are heavily reliant on plastic containers, wrapping and cutlery which often can't be recycled.

"Over half a billion plastic boxes are used across the takeaway industry every year and we know that eventually, they end up in landfill," Andrew Kenny, managing director at Just Eat U.K., said.

"This is why we've been working closely with Notpla to create an innovative alternative that is recyclable, home-compostable and which degrades in a matter of weeks," Kenny added.

Just Eat and Notpla already have a partnership which has seen seaweed-based sauce sachets introduced to restaurants.

This trial has prevented more than 46,000 plastic sachets from entering the homes of customers, according to the firm. Just Eat said it was now working with Hellmann's, a Unilever brand, to extend the sachets' roll-out.

"The takeaway food industry creates a mountain of waste and plastic pollution every year, so we welcome Just Eat's efforts in trying to improve the situation," Tony Bosworth, plastic campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement issued via Just Eat.

"With hundreds of millions of takeaway meals ordered through delivery firms every year, the industry must make the development of sustainable, non-harmful packaging solutions a top priority," Bosworth added.

"While waste reduction and the use of reusables should be the ultimate goal, we hope this is a great step on that journey."

Given the takeout sector's reliance on plastics, the question of what, if anything, can be done to limit its use of plastic packaging is a pressing one. Kerry Dinsmore, projects manager at environmental charity Fidra, told CNBC via email that it recommended "a move towards reusable and refillable packaging, either using a deposit or a bring-your-own system."

"Whilst this is increasingly happening around the world, it needs greater public awareness and acceptance, with support from local and national government, to truly be successful," Dinsmore added.

"Where reuse is not possible then it's essential that chemical legislation and waste infrastructure are in place to ensure materials can be safely and effectively recycled or composted, and are not unnecessarily lost to landfill."