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ICT: Clean environmental image but e-waste is already a serious concern

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: August 29, 2019 21:31:23


E-waste in India, as in other countries, is the fastest-growing waste stream.      —Photo: Reuters

Food delivery is a common sight in the busy city traffic. Placing of an order with apps and monitoring the progress of delivery has been a growing habit among city dwellers across the world. Unlike in the past, developing countries are not far behind to adopt this smartphone innovation. For example, in Dhaka, 20,000 food orders are delivered a day, and the volume increased ten times just over a year. Both the local and global startups are highly active on the scene, often clogging city traffic with motorbikes rushing with food delivery orders.

On the global scene, the most notable food delivery take-off is in China.  China's food delivering business has shown rapid growth reaching over $65 billions in revenue. But such growth has proportionately increased the waste, creating mammoth environmental concern. Such concern has reached an alarming level raising the question of whether "Food Delivery Apps are drowning China in plastic."  As reported by media, in China, "Each day, their 256 million users collectively discard 65 million food containers, 20 million chopsticks, and 20 million plastic bags. Consumer behaviour, business practices, recycling and waste treatment, have all failed to keep up with the rapidly growing industry." 

With the lead of China, major cities of the world have started to experience astronomical growth of waste out of takeout containers, utensils and bags. It has been estimated that the online takeout business in China alone was responsible for 1.6 million tons of packaging waste in 2017, a nine-fold jump from two years before. That includes 1.2 million tons of plastic containers, 175,000 tons of disposable chopsticks, 164,000 tons of plastic bags and 44,000 tons of plastic spoons.  Similarly, in India, media reports, "according to an industry estimate, all food delivery aggregators put together process roughly about 40 million orders a month, generating nearly 22,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste." Basically, on an average, every single order is producing more than 500 gm of plastic waste. Vast majority of this plastic ends up discarded, buried or burned with the rest of the trash.

The main value proposition of online food delivery is about hassle-free access to freshly cooked food, often at a discounted price.  Ordering food over apps is either cheaper or costs the same as in a restaurant. But who pays for the delivery cost? And most importantly, for what? The deep subsidy has been used to create the illusion that ordering food over apps is a cheaper option than cooking or walking into restaurants. Why has it been done? It has been done to create lazy, indoor eating habit. Once people get used to this unhealthy lifestyle, monetisation pressure keeps raising the price, making food delivery over apps no longer a cheaper option. Startups are bagging on the idea that once people get used to this lazy eating habit, they will be locked in. The newly created habit will compel them to pay even more than restaurant price.

Historically, economic growth out of technology has been linked with negative implications on the environment. Starting from steam engines to internal combustion engines, the diffusion of technology has been making the environmental issue worse. Irrespective of the greatness of the technology, often environmental effect limits the economic value that could be derived from a particular technology. For unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance, every generation has perceived the undesirable side effects of production technology.

It's often believed that unlike in the past generation of technologies, information and communication technology (ICT) will have a far less damaging effect on the environment. It's also argued that ICT also has the potential of reducing the detrimental effect by offering better substitutions. For example, usages of smartphone, computer, and connectivity have been replacing paper with e-mails, electronic documents and digital contents. Similarly, connectivity is also reducing the travel need, saving the burning of fuel. Often, digitisation and e-services are being promoted with the argument of saving cost and time, and reducing environmental damage.  

Smartphone apps-based food delivery innovation has increased convenience. But does it lower the cost of production? Making it a cheaper option is not visible though. It has been instead creating a lazy culture, which is often unhealthy. Startups are providing subsidy in making online food delivery seemingly a cheaper alternative. Once the monetisation agenda picks up, it will not remain an economical option. It might be argued that it has been creating new jobs. But the question could be-- to serve which purpose? Is this job creation agenda ending up in nurturing unhealthy habit and producing staggering amount of waste, particularly of plastic?

Despite the apparent clean environmental image of ICT, e-waste is already a serious concern. According to the global e-waste monitor 2017, the world now discards approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste per year. Among the discarded electronic products, smartphones and computers are at the top. For example, in 2017, over 1.5 billion mobile phones were sold. And all these gadgets will end as e-waste in less than ten years. To make it worse, food delivery apps are adding millions of tons of plastic. Plastic pollution can afflict land, waterways and oceans. Due to its severity, in 2019 a new report "Plastic and Climate" was published. According to the report, in 2019, plastic will contribute greenhouse gases equivalent of 850 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. It is estimated that 1.1 to 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean from coastal communities each year.

Food delivery is now a new source of plastic waste. The growing plastic waste production of online food delivery may also warrant examining and estimating the costs of climate change, requiring prohibitive intervention like imposing a carbon tax, or making eco-friendly packaging mandatory.

Sustainability of development has been a burning issue. We look for next-generation technologies for reducing environmental damage and driving economic growth simultaneously. ICT has been a hope for offering us the alternative to existing technologies in reducing environmental damage. Despite having many good examples in favour of going green, plastic waste created by food delivery apps is a serious concern. It's neither offering innovation in making food better or cheaper, nor making the environment cleaner. It is rather focusing on nurturing lazy habit and creating lock-in effect for churning out a profitable business -- at a huge cost on the environment.

M Rokonuzzaman PhD is an academic and researcher on technology, innovation ands policy.

zaman.rokon.bd@gmail.com

 

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