The Rise of Food Delivery Apps Has Changed the Landscape of Hospitality Emissions, but Where Does Responsibility to Handle it Lie? With the Apps or the Venues?

Food delivery, particularly online apps, has seen a boom during and following the pandemic. Growth has come with associated environmental concerns, but defining responsibility can be difficult within the symbiotic nexus of apps and restaurants
August 24, 2022

The growth of food delivery apps

Over the past five years, there has been a noticeable increase in the market for meal delivery. Food delivery has evolved beyond takeout to anything and everything. Driven largely, but not exclusively, by platform-to-consumer businesses like DoorDash, Uber Eats, Delivery hero & JustEat (the latter 2 with 99 and 115 million users respectively - reported by the business of apps), billions of dollars in potential revenue collection have been added to the market.[i] Faster and less expensive delivery has been made possible by the network effects of more delivery riders and route optimisation technologies. Many food delivery businesses have seen a whirlwind effect as a result, and they are now trying to undercut their competitors on extremely slim profit margins in order to gain market share.[ii] As millions of people in lockdown placed their first-ever online food orders during COVID-19, the industry was thrust many years into the future in regards to projected growth. In the third week of lockdown, grocery delivery operator Instacart claimed to have met its 2022 targets.[iii] Growth was similarly seen as the world went into lockdown in February and March; Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and DoorDash all reported a sharp increase in orders during the inception of worldwide lockdowns.[iv]

Source: Edison Trends

Food delivery and the climate crisis

Like most environmental impacts, the effect of food delivery on our natural world is twofold: emissions and waste. On emissions, the impact of food production-related GHGs is a large proportion of the total output; however, in the context of takeaways, the product provided at wholesalers and supermarket retailers have a similar footprint and, as such, change little whether a meal is home cooked or ordered in.Despite this, there is a consideration that, with the vast plant-based options on delivery apps that may be beyond personal culinary talent, there is scope that emission reduction could be attained here. However, what can be considered is the transport-related emissions for delivery, whilst estimated to account for 5% of the lifecycle emissions of a takeaway, the policy-driven advancements in decarbonising the transport sector make individual progress in this sector more and more attainable. Before the pandemic, WEF projected that by 2030 delivery vehicles in the world’s 100 most delivery vehicle-intensive cities will rise by 36%.[vi] With the monumental growth in online food delivery during the pandemic, Statista now estimates a 50% increase in users of such apps. As such, it is likely a similar increase in deliveries will be seen.[vii] Research undertaken by Uswitch and reported by EuroNews suggested that a spend of €50 weekly could result in a 450% rise in that household’s carbon footprint.[viii] On waste, research from Ecowatch has suggested that 44% of oceanic plastic waste is related to takeaway food.[ix]

Source: Ecowatch

Who’s responsible? Who can change it?

The expansion of online food delivery has altered hospitality economics; margins for those who make the food are decreasing, by some commentary, at an unsustainable rate. McKinsey analysis shows that for a $34.4 spend, $15 is funnelled away from the eatery and towards the platform or as a tip for the delivery driver.[x]

Source: McKinsey

The economic impact on restaurants that the growth in online food delivery has had indicates that the capability to manage the process in a more sustainable fashion will lie with the apps and online services themselves. This is secondarily supported by the fact that the mode of delivery is primarily controlled by the apps themselves. Some apps, such as JustEat, offer operational discounts to their delivery drivers that opt to use electric vehicles, which will undoubtedly reduce the emissions related to the delivery process.[xi] With regards to the waste aspect of food delivery, the approach to limit the impact should be a joint venture; apps should provide a means for users to opt out of receiving cutlery or plastic bags that they don’t want, but also the responsibility lies with the restaurant itself to adopt a lower plastic or reusable receptacle for their products, this is not a new concept with Deliveroo announcing its inception in 2018.

For businesses that are providing their own delivery rather than through an app, there are ways business owners can improve their delivery services while still reaping the financial benefits of providing delivery services. Depending on your priorities and finances, these alternatives range from modest effort to greater commitment. Businesses can consider the following as per the CILT Route to net zero:

  • Route optimisation for drivers.
  • Reducing delivery hours.
  • Increasing delivery efficiency by having drivers deliver more than one order at a time.

Food plays a significant role in our daily lives, and many people place a high value on convenience. There are, however, methods to maintain your environmental principles while still taking advantage of the convenience of food delivery. Small adjustments can have a large effect, such as helping consumers find more ecologically friendly delivery options and helping business owners adopt more environmentally friendly procedures.


[i] Business of apps- Food Delivery App Revenue and Usage Statistics (2022)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Business of apps- Instacart Revenue and Usage Statistics (2022)

[iv] Ibid

[v] Wholesale vs. Retail for Small-Business Owners

[vi] WEF- The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem

[vii] Statista- Online Food Delivery

[viii] EuroNews- Your weekly takeaway habit could come with a surprisingly large carbon footprint

[ix] Ecowatch- 44% of Ocean Plastics Are Linked to Takeout Food

[x] McKinsey- Ordering in: The rapid evolution of food delivery

[xi] Ibid

[xii] The Caterer- Takeaway and delivery apps pledge to reduce plastic waste

[xiii] Ibid

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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