BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - On workdays, Ms Ma Rong, a 25-year-old white-collar worker in Beijing, usually orders takeout at lunchtime, especially on hot summer days, to avoid crowded restaurants and save time.
"We don't have a canteen or time to cook when working, so we have to rely on takeout," she said.
Easy access to the internet and efficient delivery mean a growing number of people are taking advantage of takeout services.
While these services bring convenience, the non-biodegradable plastic bags and boxes used to wrap and deliver the food are damaging the environment, while mass provision of single-use wooden chopsticks is depleting natural resources.
Data released in August by the China Internet Network Information Centre show that between January and July, 295 million people in China ordered takeout via the internet. In December 2015, the number was 114 million.
As a result, the takeout sector has seen explosive growth, with the number of domestic users rising by 2.6 times in just 18 months, according to the centre, the national organisation for online businesses.
Moreover, the surge is set to continue, according to China Cuisine Association chief Jiang Junxian. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the first forum on takeout services on July 1, Mr Jiang told the audience that 345 million people are expected to order takeout in 2018.
In addition, people are also likely to place orders more frequently. According to data compiled by ele.me, a leading supplier of takeout food, 66 per cent of those who used the company's services last year will place one order a week this year.
RISING PUBLIC CONCERN
However, what is good for business is not always good for the environment, and public concern is growing.
"On average, every order includes at least four plastic bags and boxes to pack the food, plus a set of disposable chopsticks, spoons and napkins," Ms Ma said, adding that the materials inevitably end up in the rubbish bin.
"I know that plastic contaminates the environment but there's no alternative because restaurants don't use biodegradable bags," she added.
Models devised by the Green Volunteer League, an environmental non-governmental organisation in Chongqing, present an alarming picture of consumption and pollution in the sector.
On Aug 20, the NGO wrote an open letter to major meal delivery platforms stating that its calculations show that if every takeout included 1.5 pairs of chopsticks (the average number used) and a major platform received 13 million orders in a day, more than 1.95 million pairs of chopsticks would be required to meet demand.
That scenario would see more than 6,700 trees being felled, resulting in the destruction of forest ecosystems and eco-degradation, the NGO said.
Mr Xue Yue, an expert in plastic pollution at the China National Resources Recycling Association in Beijing, said most of the plastic packaging ends up in landfills or incinerators.
"Most of this packaging is non-biodegradable, so it can plague the environment for decades or even hundreds of years," he said. "The low cost of non-biodegradable plastic is the main reason it is so dominant in the market."
He added that the low recycling rate for plastic packing is exacerbating the situation.
On Sept 1, No 4 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing accepted a lawsuit filed against three delivery platforms by the Green Volunteer League.
The league claims that the disposable packaging used by the platforms, including ele.me and a rival called Meituan, poses a high risk of environmental contamination and ecological damage. Moreover, it criticised platforms for not providing customers with a choice of alternative packaging materials.
Environmental law professor Wang Mingyuan at Tsinghua University spoke out in favour of the lawsuit: "I think it indicates growing awareness of pollution caused by takeout food companies, and could make them amend their practices."
However, he pointed out that litigants rarely win public interest cases because the complexity of such suits means it is difficult to ascribe legal responsibility.
"It's much better to directly contact government departments, which can work with these companies to make improvements," he added.
Many delivery businesses now accept that the sector is damaging the environment, and are adopting measures to combat the problem.
On June 29, the China Environmental Protection Foundation, a green NGO, the China Cuisine Association, Meituan, and about 100 food producers announced the formation of an organisation to promote environmentally friendly takeout services.
"Among our 10 initiatives, we are calling for widespread use of eco-friendly packaging for takeout," said Mr Bai Xiangdong, the foundation's director of business development.
"We recognise the risk of pollution and understand that delivery platforms are responsible for controlling it. That means it is necessary for us to take measures such as setting up our organisation."
On Aug 31, the day before the court accepted the lawsuit, Meituan pledged to upgrade its takeout app to provide customers with the option of ordering food in non-plastic packaging and without chopsticks, spoons or napkins.
Meanwhile, on Sept 6, ele.me published a plan to offer a similar service and promote incentives to encourage customers to embrace the change.
The company's statement said more measures will be adopted, including forming a new industry association - comprising companies, NGOs and experts - which will focus on environmental protection and call for national environmental standards on packaging in the sector.
According to Mr Bai, most packaging used for takeout food is dumped in rubbish bins, which means it is processed with other household garbage. He urged greater sorting of waste materials as an environmental protection measure which could reduce the volume of packaging, chopsticks and napkins in landfills, and also reduce emissions of pollutants from incinerators.
"It would reduce takeout pollution, but the work would have to be done by local governments to ensure it is done properly," he said.
In March, Renmin University of China published a report on a garbage-sorting project in Beijing whose use indicated improved energy conservation and lower economic costs.
Environmental studies professor Song Guojun at Renmin who led the survey group, calculated that if the project had been in use in 2015 the cost of incineration services in the capital would have fallen by 64 per cent, from 4.22 billion yuan (S$864 million) to 1.53 billion yuan.
Along with NGOs and large companies, a growing number of individuals are working to raise awareness of environmental protection.
Since 2011, physics teacher Guo Liang at a middle high school in Feixiang county, Hebei province, has guided a group of students who make models from waste packaging.
The students found the raw materials in the street, which raised their awareness of pollution and made them think twice about using disposable chopsticks, according to Mr Guo.
He quoted the students' summary of the project: "As individuals, we cannot really make a huge difference in the consumption of plastic, but we should always strive to make changes, no matter how trivial."