This article is part of a series on the Gig Economy, stay tuned for more.

A friend recently asked me how he should best dry his hands to reduce his carbon footprint; with a paper towel or with an electric hand drier. The same person flies across the Atlantic literally dozens of times a year.

Ive just finished reading How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee, a brilliant book about the carbon footprint of stuff. Berners-Lee highlights the importance of picking ones battles. It really doesn’t matter how you dry your hands, if other aspects of you life have incredibly high carbon footprints.

To help the rest of this post flow nicely I’m going to throw in a few definitions of terms and assumptions:

  • CO2 – Carbon Dioxide
  • CH4 – Methane
  • N2O – Nitrous Oxide
  • CO2e – Carbon dioxide equivalent is a term used by Berners-Lee to bundle all greenhouse gas emissions.  For example: 1g of CH4 is equivalent to 25g of CO2, while 1g of N2O is equivalent to 300g of CO2.
  • All values unless otherwise stated are from How Bad Are Bananas? and where multiple values have been given in the book the “average” value has been used.

With that out of the way, lets get into it.

“Every Little Helps” is a fabulous slogan, but sometimes that little theoretical help can result in a little practical harm. Tesco have stopped offering “disposable” plastic bags at checkout, replacing them with “bags for life”. On the surface that seems very environmentally friendly, unfortunately you have to use a “bag for life” more than five times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than a “disposable” bag. Personally, I never get that sort of use out of them, I end up forgetting them or using them as bin bags. Great in theory, pity about the customers.

The main reason for his post is to talk about Deliveroo, the food delivery company kind enough to offer me work as a contractor.

On 7th March Deliveroo stopped offering cutlery as standard with orders. In an email they claim its:

Really important that people can enjoy their favourite food in way that’s environmentally friendly.

They are also helping restaurants use “environmentally-friendly packaging and straws”, believing this will “make a huge difference in reducing plastic waste and helping to save the planet”.

In theory, fantastic. In practice, most of this “environmentally-friendly” packaging is paper/card based. Most recycling collectors need containers to be washed clean. Dirty items are often rejected and sent to landfill. If you’ve ever tried to wash a paper plate you’ll guess the problem here. Paper/card don’t like to be washed.

If the dirty paper/card packaging is sent to landfill, it  will decay anaerobically (without oxygen) producing CH4. 1kg of paper/card in landfill will release about 400g of CO2e into the atmosphere. 1kg of plastic in landfill wont break down and wont release any carbon dioxide equivalent.

At first glance it seems plastic waste has less greenhouse gasses associated with it. However when materials are sent to landfill, replacements inevitably need to be produced. Sending 1kg of paper/card to landfill and producing 1kg of paper/card to replace it releases 1.1kg compared to 1.6kg for 1kg of plastic (dense).

All in all paper/card is probably better if you’re going to throw it away. But lets just all get better at cleaning and recycling.

Changing packaging materials is generally great and though it’s a little bit more complex than it seems, good on Deliveroo for doing it.

My big issue with their “environmentally-friendly” pride is their cutlery banishing boast. After a quick google search I found some plastic cutlery on Amazon. Each piece of cutlery weighs 4.54g, resulting in a carbon footprint of 15.9g CO2e. Lets take an imaginary order, the customer hasn’t requested cutlery. So thanks to Deliveroo’s new option the world has been saved 31.8g CO2e. Fabulous!

But while the fanfare of Deliveroo’s environmentally friendly options crescendo, there is a push to recruit moreCar drivers. At the moment I “earn” £50 for every cyclist who signs up using my referral code or £150 for every driver. It seems clear to me that they want me to target my Car owning friends.

Lets return to the imaginary cutlery free order, say the customer lives 1 mile away from the restaurant. If a cyclist is assigned the delivery, the journey will produce 18.2g CO2e*. Thats equivalent to drying your hands once with an electric hand drier. If a driver is assigned the delivery, the journey will produce 678.2g CO2e.

So while we applaud Deliveroo’s reduction in cutlery emissions, lets remember that they’re keen to sign up drivers even when their carbon footprint is 14 times higher than a cyclists. And I haven’t even discussed the negligible time saved by a Car on inner city journeys!

Until next time, remember to tip your rider, and hire me?

*assuming the emissions emebeded in the bike and equipment are 50g and the cyclist doesn’t consume any additional food to fuel the journey.