Eat in or to go? Tackling the Difficult Problem of Single-Use Plastic Takeaway Packaging

You finally reach your flat after a full day, and the last thing you want to do is to cook. So you order your food online, the same way you have done many times before. It arrives in plastic, with plastic condiment packets, and wrapped in a plastic bag. Your stomach is happy, you are happy, our planet… not necessarily. 

Disposable food packaging used traditionally in restaurants, fast food chains and in the catering industry is usually made of inexpensive polystyrene or plastic. Both materials are able to safely contain food for transportation, don’t grow mould or bacteria, and have reasonable insulating properties. On the other hand, take away food packaging is supposed to be cheap and single-use, therefore it’s produced in such way that reusability is out of the question, and the resources spent on manufacturing such packaging are not worth recovering. The same packaging is also impossible to degrade naturally and remains in the environment for generations.

As a result, we have produced literal tonnes of the stuff, and we cannot get rid of it. In March, the European Parliament approved a new law within the framework of A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy which bans single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery, straws, food containers and expanded polystyrene cups by 2021 in an effort to tackle plastic pollution globally.

What does the plastic-free future of takeaway food look like?


Global plastic pollution

According to the EU Commission, global production of plastics has increased twentyfold since the 1960s, reaching 322 million tonnes in 2015. It is expected to double again over the next 20 years. As of 2015, only 9% of plastic waste produced to date is recycled, 12% is incinerated, and 79% accumulates in landfills or the natural environment as litter (source). 

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean (source) on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments – “60 % coming from uncollected waste or litter from land-based sources, 20 % from collected plastic waste subsequently leaking into the ocean environment, and 20 % from ocean-based sources such as fisheries” (source). On European beaches alone, plastics make up 80–85 % of marine litter, half of which is single-use plastics (source).

Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade (source), so most of it still exists in some form, such as microplastic. Polystyrene and plastic food packaging alike break down into smaller parts and enter digestive systems of land and water animals, either leading to their death or eventually returning to us in the tap water, in salt and beer, and even in the air we breathe. The effects of microplastics on human health are not yet discovered.

But what about recycling?


2025 million takeaway containers per year are used in the European Union (EU) alone – if recycled, disposable takeaway containers could help reduce equivalent greenhouse gas emissions generated annually by 55,000 cars (source). However, takeaway food recycling faces many obstacles. Only 25% of the expanded polystyrene (EPS) used for food packaging in the EU (around 335 000 tonnes per year) is recycled; 30% is incinerated while the rest ends up in landfills (source). The main hurdles are sanitation of polystyrene packaging, which often comes contaminated with greasy food residues. In terms of purely plastic packaging, the Austrian recycling system doesn’t collect it – your “yellow bin” waste is supposed to be made up of plastic bottles and tetrapacks only. In countries such as Austria, where waste-to-energy plants became one of the links in the waste management chain, single-use plastic will travel to incinerators together with the rest of your household waste and burn to ash. However, in many other countries, single-use plastic traveling to landfills or unregulated dumpsites is a common procedure – in this case, plastic will either rot away in piles of thrash for thousands of years or leak into the marine environment.

One of the ideas to combat the plastic waste generated by single-use takeaway packaging is to replace the throwaway boxes with reusable containers.

Reusable food containers


In Austria, around 900,000 tonnes of plastic waste accumulates annually, around a third of which is currently being recycled. Around 300,000 tonnes are packaging waste (source).

The idea for RePhil was born during a course at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. At our campus, there are more than 300 single-use takeaway packages consumed every day. We saw them lying around campus, the bins bursting with them and thought that there must be an alternative to all this waste that is created by takeaway packaging,’ starts the story Hannah Wundsam, one of the founders of RePhil.

We discussed why people do not just bring their own reusable boxes to the restaurants, and quickly learned that takeaway is mainly a question of convenience. Even though customers are bothered by the waste they create, it would be too great of an effort to bring their own containers, to wash them and constantly carry them around. When we talked about the topic in the hallway a student approached us, telling us that he overheard our conversation and that he is writing his bachelor thesis about single-use takeaway packaging on campus. The restaurants around the university approached the campus management to ask them for an alternative solution, and Professor Groschopf took the initiative to research about the amount of waste stemming from the takeaway at the campus and what kind of alternatives are out there. This is when we chose to work on a solution that will allow for the convenience of takeaway as we know it, but reduces plastic waste and plastic pollution.

The team is made of up four members with versatile skills and experience: Cornelia Sochor and Hannah are master students from the Vienna University of Economics and Business and came up with the idea for RePhil during a course of their program “SIMC – Strategy Innovation and Management Control”. They both have work experience in banking, accounting, strategy, and sales. Xaver is a PhD student at the Technical University of Vienna and is responsible for the technology side of the business. Last but not least, Karin, a student at the University of Applied Arts of Vienna studying product design, is responsible for visual branding.

The RePhil containers are made of polypropylene and can be reused up to 300 times – after only the 7th reuse, they are more CO2 efficient than single-use containers. But the circularity of the solution doesn’t end there – broken containers will be recycled and made into toys. 

Encouraging consumers to bring reusable containers to their favourite takeaway spots is nothing new. However, encouraging the restaurants to invest money and resources into providing reusable takeaway containers is a much more difficult feat. This is why RePhil wants to make it more convenient for both consumers and restaurants to drop off the containers and re-distribute them back to the network of partners in Vienna, increasing the convenience and attractiveness of the offer. 

After having finished their meals, costumers return the empty reusable boxes in our strategically positioned drop-off stations. RePhil collects the dirty boxes, washes them and reallocates them back to the restaurant,’ explains Hannah.

Currently entering the first market test, RePhil’s aspirations run high with the desire to replace all single-use packaging in the takeaway and food delivery market in Austria. And we really hope that their dream becomes a reality!

Find out how to get involved as a restaurant, customer or a local company on the RePhil’s website.