A few years ago a friend of mine invested in an online food ordering service that was setting up shop in a few major world cities. I'm not sure what happened to that venture, but I still think the concept is a strong one. Who doesn't love take out, plus the convenience of easy-click selection?
The trouble with take out, however -- besides having to pony up a tip -- is all that wasteful packaging generated by multiple layers of bags, plastic clamshells, disposable utensils and various paper, foil and foam items. Much of that can't be recycled, and the food waste and relative difficulty of sorting is a further deterrent. Across the U.S. we toss out enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times. In New York City we throw out enough garbage each day to fill the Empire State Building. That's particularly upsetting to me because I lived virtually in the shadow of the building, and can tell you that this makes for a huge mound o' junk.
It's good to know that the take out industry is at least starting to become more aware of their impact. Enter SeamlessWeb, the online ordering service that works with 4,000 restaurant partners, and processes more than 10 million orders a year. The site, which was founded in 1999, is the country's largest in the field, and it has apparently decided to use some of it's growing muscle to help steer the market in a greener direction.
For one thing, SeamlessWeb is working with its restaurant partners to buy biodegradable plastic bags at a fraction of the cost of traditional plastic bags. The idea is to offer greener, lower-carbon packaging and save money. Of course, some greens will argue that biodegradable bags aren't very effective in modern air-free landfills, but it's a step in the right direction.
Perhaps more exciting, SeamlessWeb also recently launched a new option in which those placing an order can check a box labeled Do not include plastic utensils, napkins. In that case the restaurant preparing the meal is supposed to deliver the order with nothing except for the most basic packaging. This should save on tons of paper and plastic, while also helping restaurants lower their cost. This seems like a true win-win-win, for consumers, vendors and the planet. It also means lighter loads for delivery people. It gives consumers more choice and control over their orders, and decreases the annoyance of wasteful practices. Hopefully other retailers will follow suit.
SeamlessWeb argues that it's business model includes other inherently green features, such as decreasing the need for paper menus. That may be true, although it's difficult to get a sense of how green the act of delivery is. If people pick up their own meals while doing other errands, that's probably greener than paying someone to venture out for you. Yet again, if delivery folks combine orders and plan routes sensibly, they might squeeze more efficiency out. Ideally, deliveries would be made with increasingly green transportation (bikes, walking, transit, perhaps hybrid or electric vehicles). I left a message with SeamlessWeb staff inquiring whether they're considering ramping up such options. I'll let you know if they respond.
One note: it's definitely true that there is a wide range of restaurant partners, including vegetarian options. It's also worth noting that SeamlessWeb seems to include added value in the form of customer reviews and other communication, something Jeff Jarvis would be proud of. Bon appetit!
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