Deep in the recesses of GPRA Complex, New Moti Bagh—an upscale, gated colony for civil servants—lies a sewage treatment and waste management plant. This is Delhi’s first zero-waste area, run by Green Planet Waste Management (GPWM).

Smack dab between GPWM’s wastewater treatment and composting centres is a shed where non-recyclable plastic herded from GPRA Complex is turned to oil. This is done through a process called pyrolysis. It’s where the dankest plastic goes to die: milk packets, water bottle labels, torn, oil-stained styrofoam, and dust-laden carry bags. 

About 10% of the daily 50-odd kilos of plastic fed to this pyrolysis plant are disposable trays, food pouches, and cutlery, the kind Rajesh Mittal has seen more of in recent years thanks to food delivery.

“It’s only around 10% here because this is a high-end colony and every household has a cook,” says a bespectacled Mittal, GPWM’s managing director. “You’ll see more food containers in places like Noida, or places with a relatively higher younger, unmarried demographic. The kind of plastic generated varies from area to area and the local demographic.”

You probably know this now: we’re living in what environmentalists dub ‘The Plasticene’ (Age of plastic). Plastic, relative to metal and paper, is a young material, first finding form as Bakelite in 1907 and gaining ground because of the exigencies of war. Its affordability, portability, and disposability, once our boons, are now banes bar none. As of 2017, the world produced 350 million tonnes of plastic (excluding PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate—reusable packaging mostly for liquids).

And in an increasingly-tired world, where longer working hours marry technology and birth convenience, food containers are the new delinquents. As per a 2018 study published in science journal Elsevier, door-to-door food delivery in China accounted for a nearly-eightfold jump in packaging waste in just two years, from 0.2 million tonnes (2015) to 1.5 million tonnes (2017). Closer home, in India, we don’t know how much plastic we generate. That’s because the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) underreports such data. But we can hazard some guesses with food delivery.

In October 2018, restaurant discovery and food delivery service Zomato claimed to fulfil 23 million monthly food orders. Its rival Swiggy, which does not disclose monthly order numbers, is believed to fulfil up to 28 million orders as of March 2019. This amounts to thousands and thousands of tonnes of food container and cutlery waste, at the least. 

Small wonder then that Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bengaluru’s civic body, wants to ban plastic food containers. Bans on single-use plastics in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, are ineffectual due to inconsistent implementation.