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How online ordering could cut food waste

Food intended for composting

This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

"It feels like we’re peeling an onion."

That’s what sustainability veteran Dave Stangis said when I asked him about the long-term changes being wrought by coronavirus. We peel back a layer to reveal one impact, only to realize there’s another beneath. "Some we may not know for months," he added.

This is the third and final part of our onion-peeling exercise. We’ve already seen how the pandemic may decentralize the food system and increase emissions from last-mile deliveries. This week, we’ll look at some potentially good news from the intersection of online delivery and food waste.

Any good news on waste is welcome, because the situation is insane. Wasted food is responsible for 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — that’s three times the contribution of aviation and more than any country except China and the United States.

Around a third of that waste comes at home, which is a head-scratcher. Why are people paying for something, only to throw so much of it away? There are a host of reasons: We buy too much, forget stuff at the back of the fridge or trash perfectly edible food because it looks less than perfect. A lot of it comes down to bad habits, which is where the pandemic comes in.

Until now, food shopping seemed immune to the rise of online retail. Now Instacart is in the process of hiring more than half a million additional shoppers and a third of all consumers say they are using online grocery delivery more often.

We tend to make smaller but more frequent orders when buying online. This bumps up emissions from delivery but the total emissions associated with food consumed at home can fall by as much as 41 percent.

This shift is a major opportunity, because ordering online can lead to big reductions in wasted food. One reason is that we tend to make smaller but more frequent orders when buying online. This bumps up emissions from delivery but cuts waste to such an extent that total emissions associated with food consumed at home can fall by as much as 41 percent.

Ordering pre-prepared meal kits also leads to less waste. This can seem counterintuitive, as meal kits are often criticized for excessive packaging. (Do the parmesan shavings really need their own plastic container?) The packaging is indeed an issue, but meal kits lead to less waste and this more than cancels out the greenhouse gases associated with the extra plastic. A new analysis of kits from one brand — HelloFresh — showed emission savings of 21 percent. One earlier study put the figure at 33 percent.

We might save even more if we’re prepared to wait a few days. Last week, we looked at how advanced ordering allows delivery companies to group deliveries and reduce transport emissions. It also cuts waste at the store. Ordering ahead "helps retailers forecast the product they’ll need, leading to reduced excess and wasted food at retail," Jackie Suggitt of ReFED, a food waste non-profit, told me. "Day-of online ordering, on the other hand, may lead to more waste at retail."

The potential here is significant. What I’d love to see next is the delivery companies get involved in the debate. They have some data we need to check whether these savings are being made. They also can help consumers do a better job of planning meals, which is a critical waste-reduction strategy. (I reached out to the companies for comment: Walmart said, not unreasonably, that their e-commerce team was too busy to respond; Instacart and Amazon did not reply.)

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