Photo: Sebastien DURAND

The Climate Win: Electric ‘Robot’ Deliveries and the Scrapping of Styrofoam

Sustainability News National Parks
by Tim Wenger Apr 17, 2020

This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.

If you’re like us, you’ve been supporting your favorite local restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic by ordering takeout and buying gift cards. Kudos to all who have done so, and a social distancing balcony clap to the restaurant staff holding it down — and to those sent home simply trying to hold on.

The thought itching in the back of our collective head, however, is that all these to-go orders need disposable packaging, and the last thing our planet needs is a resurgence of low-quality, non-biodegradable takeout waste. Politico in fact reported this week on a European lobbying group asking EU governments to delay upcoming restrictions on single-use plastics due to the pandemic. Consumers who want to support our restaurants during forced closures are left with little choice. Even if you normally bring your own to-go food container when you eat out, that’s not an option with pick-up ordering or delivery.

Yet despite the bad waste-centric news, progress is still being made.

Styrofoam isn’t coming back

Cities big and small, including New York City and Bangor in Maine, have in recent months unveiled plans for styrofoam packaging bans to accompany the plastic bag bans increasingly permeating local jurisdictions nationwide. Eater reported in January that Chicago is also considering giving foam containers the boot, and even iconic chains like Dunkin’ Donuts are getting rid of styrofoam coffee cups and containers. Worthy of another balcony clap is the fact that many chain restaurants, Dunkin’ included, are replacing foam with paper rather than plastic — which best-case is recycled, in some cases can be composted, and in the worst-case biodegrades in a landfill. You should still bring your portable coffee mug and to-go food container with you when possible, though, as that’s always the best option.

Science to the rescue

Oh, the things that happen when scientists are left to their devices. The Guardian reported last week on a major development in plastic recycling. A firm called Carbios has discovered an enzyme that breaks down plastic bottles to a recyclable state in just a few hours. Already announcing partnerships with major brands like Pepsi, the firm hopes to have a scaled production practice live by 2025. It’s an experiment that, if successful, would dramatically reduce plastic waste and production by keeping existing plastics in use for much longer. Not that this development justifies the use of single-use plastics. With any luck, in 20 years plastic cutlery will be as relevant as the VCR is today.

Emission-free delivery vehicles

Back in March, this column reported on a massive order of electric vehicles by Amazon. The adoption of electric vehicle fleets on a wider scale is great news for the restaurant industry, particularly QSR, or quick-service restaurants, in which delivery plays a major part in their operation. Large-scale purchases increase production, which decreases prices, both in personal vehicles and electric trucks. Food delivery service Bite Squad announced a fleet purchase of Tesla Model 3 electric cars back in 2018, and Car and Driver reported this week that the same electric, driverless “robot” vehicles from the French company Navya, which delivered medical supplies and food in Wuhan, China, during the citywide shutdown could be coming to US restaurants and delivery fleets in the coming years.

In the interim, as we wait for these developments to take hold, keep supporting local businesses and workers.

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