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Air pollution as a determinant of food delivery and related plastic waste


Plastic waste is a growing environmental concern. The food delivery industry is criticized for its environmental impact, especially its current use of plastic packaging. At the same time, the environment impacts the industry. We show that air pollution is a behavioural driver of food delivery consumption in the urban developing world. Our hypothesis is that individuals are more likely to order delivery when their personal cost of exposure to the outdoor environment rises. We surveyed office workers in three Chinese cities and found that an increase of 100 μg m–3 in particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) raised the propensity to order food delivery by two-fifths of the sample mean. We used photographic evidence to quantify disposable plastic in meal delivery. Data from an online delivery platform with a broad customer base indicate a smaller, but still substantial, causal link between air quality and food delivery. Overall, air pollution control brings plastic waste co-benefits.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of mean PM2.5 concentrations by city and period in our samples.
Fig. 2: Hazy versus clear days induced by atmospheric pollutant removal.
Fig. 3: The impact of PM2.5 on food delivery and the use of plastic packaging across lunch choices.
Fig. 4: Distributed lag models.

Data availability

Data collected in the study 1 panel survey, including pictures uploaded by respondents, are available on Dataverse (, along with the environmental data used in both studies. Company data in study 2 are proprietary but, to facilitate approximate verification, the authors share the aggregated data used to prepare the results shown in Supplementary Table 11. Moreover, upon reasonable request, the individual-level data in study 2 are available on an NUS computer (specifically, on a server at the NUS Centre for Behavioural Economics) to replicate all published results from the deposited computer code. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

Code used in this study is available on Dataverse:


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We thank Q. Chao, J. Miao and Y. F. Toh for research assistance. J.C. acknowledges support from the Singapore Ministry of Education Social Science Research Thematic Grant (no. MOE2016-SSRTG-059, SPIRE). A.S. acknowledges support from the Singapore Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 1 (no. R122-000-235-112). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.S. conceived the hypothesis. J.C., H.L. and A.S. designed the study. A.S. contacted market research companies for quotations and selected MAP under contract (study 1). J.C. obtained the proprietary food delivery company data (study 2). H.L. obtained the environmental data. J.C., H.L. and A.S. analysed the data and wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Junhong Chu, Haoming Liu or Alberto Salvo.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Primary handling editor: Aisha Bradshaw.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Prevalence of plastic packaging in food delivery choices.

Pictures uploaded by different office workers as supporting evidence of their lunch choices. The vast majority of pictures show the meal, providing a measure of disposable plastic use (Fig. 3). Examples here are for food delivery service, showing either the meal and/or the receipt.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Low use of plastic packaging in walk-to-restaurant choices.

Pictures uploaded by different office workers as supporting evidence of their lunch choices. The vast majority of pictures show the meal, providing a measure of disposable plastic use (Fig. 3). Examples here are for walk-to-restaurant meals, showing either the meal, restaurant surroundings, or the receipt.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–11, Supplementary Tables 1–31, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary References.

Reporting Summary

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Contains the statistics shown in Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Contains the statistics shown in Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 3

Contains the statistics shown in Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Contains the statistics shown in Fig. 4.

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Chu, J., Liu, H. & Salvo, A. Air pollution as a determinant of food delivery and related plastic waste. Nat Hum Behav 5, 212–220 (2021).

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