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Truth Behind the Headlines: Reducing air pollution could reduce waste

It has been reported that bad outdoor air pollution discourages office workers from going out to eat at lunch time and increases the number of take-away food delivery orders. This results in much higher volumes of plastic packaging being created than usual, so it was proposed that improving air quality has the potential to reduce waste production by encouraging office workers to eat out.


Analysis of PM2.5 measurements from air-monitoring networks in three major Chinese cities over lunchtime periods found a strong link existed between the levels of particulate matter recorded and delivery food consumption. The increase in delivered take-away meals was accompanied by a marked increase in the use of plastic bags and plastic containers. The relationship was still observed once adjustments were made to account for economic, weather and seasonal differences.

Using our recommended five tips, Global Action Plan reviewed the study:


Questions to ask to get to the truth Our response
1. Does the article refer to a report to back up its claims?

Yes, the article refers to a study that tested whether there is a causal link between air pollution and plastic waste through the demand for food delivery. The results of the study were published in the scientific journal ‘Nature Human Behaviour’.

2. Who is behind the study it refers to?

Three academics: Junhong Chu, Haoming Liu and Alberto Salvo, from the National University of Singapore.

3. How fantastical and radical is the claim that is being made?

The study findings were published in an international peer-reviewed scientific journal which means that the data and method used have been scrutinised and found to be suitable. The researchers also tested for other factors which could have affected the results (such as weather), which is good practice. However, the study was very limited in its scope, looking at a single pollutant, using data from just three highly polluted cities in China, a country where take-away meal delivery rates are amongst the highest in the world. This means that the results may not be valid for other cities around the world, such as in countries with different pollution and behavioral trends, or at least not on the same scale. Nevertheless, the study concluded that the relationship was likely to exist in other developing nation’s cities, especially those in Asia, which is plausible.


4. What geographical region does the claim refer to?

Beijing, Shenyang and Shijiazhuang - major cities in China and with potential application to cities in other developing nations in Asia.

5. What is the sample size of the study?

The study surveyed lunch choices of 251 office workers for 11 workdays in three Chinese cities between January and June 2018 and used recorded PM2.5 measurements for the same locations and time period. The research also accessed data on 3.5 million food delivery orders for 350,000 users from the 2016 Beijing order book of an online food delivery platform.


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