Officials mull rules for food packaging to reduce plastic

Hu Min
Shanghai authorities are considering drafting regulations on paper containers for take-away and online-delivery food.
Hu Min

Shanghai authorities are considering drafting regulations on paper containers for take-away and online-delivery food after earlier efforts to promote eco-friendly packaging met with mediocre results.

Non-binding packaging standards, the first of their kind in China, were released in Shanghai in April to encourage replacement of plastic food boxes and bags with paper bowls and bio-degradable sacks.

The standards were implemented on a trial basis by, Meituan and Baidu Waimai in select areas of the city starting in June. However, less than half of the 1 million eco-friendly paper bowls distributed by the platforms have been used by catering businesses, according to the Shanghai Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau, which drafted the standards.

The bureau’s findings were confirmed by the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration, which implemented the eco-friendly packaging trial.

“A large number of catering businesses still use plastic containers, and we feel they were not excited over the idea (of changing),” said Zhang Lei, deputy director of the administration’s food supervision and management department.

Plastic containers come in many shapes and are harder than paper, catering insiders said. Paper containers are also more expensive than those made of plastic.

“Paper containers have very limited size and shape options, which is not suitable for set meals containing a variety of foods. And the seal is not tight, allowing soups to leak out,” said Zou Lili, marking director of Mystic South-Yunnan Ethnic Cuisine. “(Paper) also gets soft under high temperature.”

Cost is another concern.

One outlet of Harvest Festival Group makes about 200 online delivery orders daily, and a company representative estimates it would cost an additional 3,000 yuan (US$453) per month if these orders were made with paper containers. With the group operating 80 in Shanghai, this would translate into an additional monthly expense of 200,000 yuan.

“Businesses hope the containers can be both cheap and practical,” explained Zhang Saiping, the restaurant’s operation director.

“We are conducting experiments on degradable packaging with relevant associations and are recommending qualified businesses to our listed catering businesses,” said Zhang Yi, with online food delivery platform

Zhang Zhunmin, deputy director of the Shanghai FDA, said industry groups, research institutes and container manufactures will step up research and development of new environmentally friendly containers, and authorities will research the drafting of relevant regulations.

The standards issued in April contained a number of technical requirements, and were expected to cut plastic waste from the food delivery industry by more than 75 percent if fully implemented.

It is estimated that an average of 1.65 million food delivery orders are completed every day in Shanghai. These orders generate some 1.2 billion discarded plastic boxes each year, totaling 45,000 tons of waste, according to the Shanghai Quality and Technical Supervision Bureau.

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