How Convenient?

For the mapping project for Design Ecologies, I focused on the system of convenience- food delivery and take-away in particular.

As a city of take-away culture, it would not be a pretense to say one of the few things a new comer notices in London is a large number of take-away signs; take-away boxes on streets. Within such course of London's take-away culture, the matter of concern for this project is the ubiquitous use of polystyrene boxes. Vulnerable to breeze due to its light weight, it can be presumed that numerous disposed boxes end up placing themselves at the disposal of the river after finishing the journey on land.

Fast-food industry, including take-away, is one of the few sectors that thrives no matter what the economy is doing (The Sunday Times). As the duty of meal preparation became cumbersome due to the increase of female labour participation outside of home, the appearance of the system of take-away and delivery was timely and very much welcomed in the 1960s in the western world. In past research examining demand for FAFH (Food Away From Home), "convenience" has mainly been defined as arising from the time saved by avoiding meal preparation. And what distinguishes fast-food is that it is indeed fast (Jekanowski, et al.). In the United States alone, the number increased 13% in 10 year span and 20 times as much money is spent on fast food in 40 year span (Entertainment Marketing Letter).

Fast-food tend to locate themselves in lower income areas, including school zones. 17 or so take-away restaurants around Goldsmiths, University of London are patronized by students and locals. The research has identified that 70% of them order polystyrene take-away containers from the same place, JJ Food Service Ltd. One of the restaurant owners remarked, "Most of the shops order these from JJ [Food Service Ltd.] because it's cheap". It was confirmed once again, that among the take-away boxes listed on the website (, polystyrene boxes are cheaper than that of paper or cardboard boxes. In addition, the polystyrene boxes were designed specifically for the typical fast-food types: burgers, kebabs, fish and chips, etc.

Polystyrene foam, also commonly known as styrofoam, is one of the most widely used plastics. Polystyrene is economical and versatile. Its foam is a good thermal insulator, hence it is widely used for food packaging. It is classified as number "6" in recycling system and claimed to be 100% recyclable at recycling facilities; nevertheless, 11% of the styrofoam used every year is recycled. Polystyrene is not easily recycled since it is generally not accepted in curbside collection recycling programs. The majority of them is discarded on the streets and ends up blowing in the wind or floating on water due to its lightweight and aerodynamic nature even when properly disposed of. Polystyrene foam breaks down into smaller, non-biodegradable pieces that are ingested by marine life and other wildlife. At least 162 marine species including most seabirds have been reported to have eaten plastics and other litter (California Integrated Waste Management Board). Animals confuse marine litter, most notably styrofoam, for food and die of suffocation and starvation by ingesting. Over 100,000 marine animals die per year from Styrofoam and other plastic trash (NOAA Marine Debris Program). It is informed that in the worst areas of the Pacific Ocean there is already over 40 times more plastic than plankton. What is known to be 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' is twice the size of Texas and mainly plastic waste. Furthermore, it was reported at at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido, Ph.D. found that what is known to be non-biodegradable, polystyrene in the ocean begins to decomposed within one year, releasing potentially toxic chemicals, causing additional pollution (Science Daily). Nevertheless, plastic industry claims that there are other materials that have more negative influence on nature than polystyrene.

Along with the plastic industry, EPS packaging Group asserts that packaging has much less impact on the environment than other competitive materials for the same use; using EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) to package a product will [also] result in a reduction in fuel consumption compared to other materials (EPS Packaging Group). It is said that polystyrene foam forms a complete loop, as its scraps can be turned into clothes hangers, toys, picture frames, and architectural molding; even be used for power generation by combustion. None the less, there is also the opposite claim that it is in fact not a 'closed loop', for collected polystyrene is not remanufactured into the previous form, but into other products, meaning that more resources are used and more pollution is created.

Historically, McDonald's, the icon of fast-food, pulled out styrofoam from its packaging in 1990, greatly due to the strong resistance led by Grassroots Environmental activists, students and concerned individuals as well as McToxics campaign and the McLibel Trial. Prior to the change, McDonald's claimed that they would recycle; however, it was doubted as the plastics industry classified polystyrene foam in the lowest rank by recyclability (Lipsett). Despite joining Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to make attempts to recycle the traditional clamshell-shaped hamburger container, the public's fixed perception of polystyrene led them to switch to paper wraps. McDonald's announced to end styrofoam use on November 1, 1990. As the ripple effect, most fast-food chains followed suit on the same day (Lipsett). Ironically, McDonald's presented its sweet tea in styrofoam cup in 2008, claiming they "evaluate a package for impacts across many criteria (e.g., weight, resource use, recyclability) as opposed to only selecting the package based on its ability to be recycled".

Based on the research, the animation "How Convenient?" illustrates the formula of y=f(x), x being the temporary convenience industry, corporates and individuals take advantage of; f being economical and convenient polystyrene; y being the ultimate convenience the society is to pay. According to American Chemistry Council, attributing the litter issue to one particular packaging material does not solve the problem because another type of packaging will take its place as litter unless behavior changes. This system of convenience centering around take-away and delivery food, drawing the never-ending cycle is currently right on the 'cradle-to-grave' routine. Polystyrene foam is designed for a useful life of minutes or hours, but it continues to exist in our environment for hundreds or thousands of years (Quan).