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Sharing tableware reduces waste generation, emissions and water consumption in China’s takeaway packaging waste dilemma

Abstract

China has a rapidly growing online food delivery and takeaway market, serving 406 million customers with 10.0 billion orders and generating 323 kilotonnes of tableware and packaging waste in 2018. Here we use a top-down approach with city-level takeaway order data to explore the packaging waste and life-cycle environmental impacts of the takeaway industry in China. The ten most wasteful cities, with just 7% of the population, in terms of per capita waste generation, were responsible for 30% of the country’s takeaway waste, 27–34% of the country’s pollutant emissions and 30% of the country’s water consumption. We defined one paper substitution and two sharing tableware scenarios to simulate the environmental mitigation potentials. The results of the scenario simulations show that sharing tableware could reduce waste generation by up to 92%, and environmental emissions and water consumption by more than two-thirds. Such a mechanism provides a potential solution to address the food packaging waste dilemma and a new strategy for promoting sustainable and zero-waste lifestyles.

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Fig. 1: Takeaway packaging waste generated in 353 Chinese cities, 2018.
Fig. 2: Top and bottom Chinese cities in per capita takeaway packaging waste.
Fig. 3: Life-cycle takeaway CO2 emission and TEC of Chinese cities, 2018.
Fig. 4: Life-cycle takeaway environmental impacts (air) by tableware and packaging type under different scenarios.
Fig. 5: Life-cycle takeaway environmental impacts (water) by tableware and packaging type under different scenarios.

Data availability

The weights of the tableware and packaging and cities’ takeaway order data are respectively provided in Supplementary Tables 1 and 5. The LCIs were sourced from manufacturers’ data, the CLCD56, Ecoinvent57 and literature sources59,60,69. All data used in the study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

All programming codes are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Program for Guangdong Introducing Innovative and Entrepreneurial Teams (2019ZT08L213), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41921005, 91846301 and 71704029), the National Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province (2020A1515011230) and the Humanities and Social Science Foundation of the Ministry of Education of China (16YJCZH162).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Y.Z. and D.G. designed the study. Y.Z., W.X. and J.L. prepared data. Y.Z. conducted calculations and drafted the manuscript. D.G., Y.Z. and Y.S. led the analysis. Y.Z. and Y.S. drew the figures. All authors participated in discussing the results and contributed to writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yuli Shan, Dabo Guan or Yanpeng Cai.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Types of takeaway tableware and packaging.

The tableware sets under baseline (a, b, c, e and h), paper-substitution (c, f and h), and tableware-sharing (d, g and i) scenarios are shown.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Top ten cities in per capita takeaway waste generation, emissions and water consumption.

The contribution of each tableware and packaging in per capita takeaway waste generation, emissions and water consumption in top ten cities is shown in different colours.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 System boundary for tableware and packaging under scenarios considered in the study.

The life cycle phases of tableware and packaging consumed in China’s takeaway industry under scenarios are presented. (T—transport).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Distributions of takeaway tableware and packaging manufacturer in China.

The number and location of each type of takeaway tableware and packaging manufacturer are shown.

Source data

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–3 and 7–11, titles and captions for Tables 4–6, and references.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Tables 4–6

The product transport distance, takeaway order data, and takeaway waste, emissions and water consumption of Chinese cities.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Takeaway packaging waste generated in 353 Chinese cities in 2018.

Source Data Fig. 2

Takeaway packaging waste generated per capita in the top and bottom ten Chinese cities.

Source Data Fig. 3

Life-cycle takeaway CO2 emission and TEC of Chinese cities in 2018.

Source Data Fig. 4

Life-cycle takeaway CO2 emission and air pollutant emissions by tableware and packaging type under different scenarios.

Source Data Fig. 5

Life-cycle takeaway COD emission and water consumption by tableware and packaging type under different scenarios.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 2

Top ten cities in per capita takeaway waste generation, emissions and water consumption.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 4

Distributions of takeaway tableware and packaging manufacturers in China.

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Zhou, Y., Shan, Y., Guan, D. et al. Sharing tableware reduces waste generation, emissions and water consumption in China’s takeaway packaging waste dilemma. Nat Food 1, 552–561 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-00145-0

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