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    CircuEat: Sustainable Food Delivery Service through Circular Food Box

    by Anqi Shi 07/03/2019 09:56 PM BST

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          Sustainable Food Delivery Service through Circular Tupperware

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          Project Background

          Food delivery service in China has become disruptive innovation that provides convenience of getting food to the customers and operational efficiencies to restaurant owners. The market evaluation in 2018 is at 37 billion USD. To accommodate the conveniences, food delivery service relies heavily on utilizing disposable food boxes, cutlery, and packing bags, which are mostly made from polypropylene.

          A typical order usually consists of two or three plastic food boxes, a plastic bag, and a variety of plastic cutlery or bamboo chopsticks.  In 2017, this business alone was responsible for 1.6 million tons of waste generation, in which 75% of the wastes were the food boxes (Zhong and Zhang, 2019). According to research, 75% of the total waste are improperly treated and dumped to the landfill, some even stray far and pollute the rivers and oceans [Song et al, 2018]. Legal actions have been taken against food delivery companies to solve the waste issues, however even the best solution can at most only reduce the cutlery wastes. The issues will be exacerbated in the future as food delivery services in China is expected to grow 62% every year. 

          Considering the market value and the forecast of food delivery business, we found a circular business idea, by developing a business model in reusable food box, which also becomes solution to reduce plastic waste pollution. 


          Project Description

          Our project is developing an innovative food delivery system which aims to reduce major chunk of food delivery wastes i.e: disposable plastic box. The system is similar to traditional glass milk bottles concept: instead of delivering dishes in disposable plastic box, the food delivery company will deliver the food in rented reusable circular food box .

          Present food delivery system is managed through mobile apps that are developed and owned by delivery companies and involve three other parties: customers, restaurants, and freelance delivery men. Customers can choose the restaurant and browse the menu list in the app and pay the orders online using e-money. The freelance delivery men within the distance range can accept the orders through the same app. Afterwards, the delivery men will collect the prepared orders from the restaurants and deliver them to the customers. Once customers finish their meals, most of the food boxes are disposed. While some disposable food boxes can be reused for another 3-4 times, however, the material quality is not safe to sustain long term re-use. Quite often the meals are not finished and left inside the boxes, leading to improper waste segregation and contamination, which hinder the plastics recycling process.

          The revamped food delivery system will still be managed through mobile app, but it also involves additional party: The food box rental company. The rental company rents out reusable food boxes, which are called CircuEat Boxes to delivery company with RFID code attached to help with identification and tracking.

          1. The CircuEat Boxes will be distributed by rental company to restaurant according to their dishes requirements. 
          2. When the customers place orders in mobile app, guarantee fees of the CircuEat Boxes are reserved in their e-money balance.
          3. Delivery men who accept the orders will collect the orders from the restaurants, scan the RFID code in the CircuEat Boxes, and deliver the orders to the customers.
          4. The customers must do minimal cleaning like wiping or rinsing CircuEat Boxes after they finish the food.
          5. The customers can return the cleaned CircuEat Boxes to any of the delivery men from the food delivery app within 3 days. The delivery men will scan the RFID code in the old CircuEat Boxes and the guarantee fee will be returned to their e-money balance. 
          6. If the customers didn’t return or properly clean the CircuEat Boxes within 3 days, the guarantee fees will be deducted from their e-money balance for payment to rental company.
          7. Delivery men will drop the used CircuEat Boxes in the rental companys shops every night.
          8. The customers who cannot find a delivery man nearby within 3 days can alternatively return the CircuEat Boxes to the collection point located in different districts, or notify a delivery man who will come and pick the CircuEat Boxes through the food app. 
          9. The rental company will do further cleaning and sterilization of CircuEat Boxes prior to redistribution to restaurants.

          The CircuEat Boxes are owned and managed by the rental company. The rental fees of the CircuEat Boxes are paid by the delivery company.

          CircuEat Box Design

          The proposed CircuEat Box has similar volume of standard disposable polypropylene food box (670 mL) and consists of 4 components:

          1. Stainless steel inner container
            The stainless steel inner container is the main container with direct contact with foods. The purposes of having stainless steel container in the design is for easier cleaning, especially if the food is very oily. The container has partitions to provide segregation of dishes as required. This component is very durable and can be reused without any replacement, unless physically deformed.

          2. Polypropylene outer frame
            The polypropylene outer frame is to provide easier handling of the container, considering stainless steel is a very good heat conductor. This layer also will help to insulate the heat. The other frame will also be equipped with a leg for ease of stacking for the delivery service and better balance for food box

          3. Polypropylene lid
            Polypropylene lid has features of grooved partition that follows the partition of the metal containers. The partition and borders on the lid are lined with rubber seals to prevent leaking.

          4. RFID code
            The RFID code is inscribed on the CircuEat Box itself to prevent damage in the long run.

          Project Impact

          Based on the study done by Galego-Schmid et al (2019), 1 polypropylene disposable food box is used one time, weighing about 31.5 gram per 670 mL size food box and 1 polypropylene reusable food box can be used up to 47 times, weighing about 141.3 gram (Gallego-Schmid, Mendoza, and Azapagic, 2019). Therefore, by implementing this system the food box wastes by the end of its functional lifespan can be reduced up to 90%, i.e.: reduction from 1.20 million ton to 0.11 ton million ton plastic waste. There’s also a possibility to reduce the waste even further by recycling the plastic waste into non-food grade plastic product.

          In addition, Material Circularity Indicator (MCI) is calculated by adopting the framework by Ellen Macarthur Foundation (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2015). Assuming 100% virgin feedstock and product lifespan increase of 9x, thus the calculated MCI score is 0.9.

          This project will significantly reduce single use plastics, reduce the municipal waste management effort, and hopefully increase the customers awareness about resource overconsumption. 


          Ellen Macarthur Foundation. (2015). Circular Indicators - An approach to measuring circularity methodology. Retrieved from

          Gallego Schmid, A., Fernandez Mendoza, J. M., & Azapagic, A. (2019). Environmental impacts of takeaway food containers. Journal of Cleaner Production, 417-427. 

          Song, Guanghan, Hui Zhang, Huabo Duan, and Ming Xu. (2018) "Packaging waste from food delivery in China’s mega cities." Resources, Conservation and Recycling 130: 226-227.

          Zhong R.; Zhang C. (2019, May 28). Food delivery apps are drowning China in Plastic. Retrieved from

          Co-authors to your solution

          Anny Lim, Jane Christina Irawan, Robin Barkhausen, Attabik Awan, Sameer Chourasia

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