Opinion

OPINION: CITY CANNOT SUSTAIN “REPLICATOR ECONOMY”

In 2021, a bag of food can materialise at an apartment door not much slower than the starship replicators of 1990s science fiction

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!” barks Captain Jean-Luc Picard at the starship replicators. A steaming cup of tea appears in seconds.

“Meat sticks, Thai, hot!” orders the man to the tablet in his luxury Wan Chai apartment. Seconds later (nearer 240 seconds than the four seconds a starship captain must wait for his tea, but still countable in seconds) a bag of Thai kebabs appear on the doormat outside the apartment, hot, fresh, with a side of sweet jammy chilli sauce.

In Star Trek‘s 24th century, Picard becomes so acquainted with replicator convenience, it changes his relationship with servants. “Tea, Earl Grey, hot!” he once commanded a tea lady on Earth, dehumanising the woman and her teapot ritual.

In Hong Kong, 2021, we’re already there.

Ghost kitchens are just a hatch in a wall: an arm thrusts the food out, the kitchen workers faceless.

From crumbling walk-ups to towering luxury duplexes, customers leave stern instructions: “Leave food on door. Do not ring bell. Do not knock”. Many customers have tacked hooks to their doors or gates specifically for food delivery.

These customers want to browse a timeline (not news, friends, cats or entertainment, but food), press some buttons and have something appear, as if by magic.

And Covid-19 is the perfect excuse to finally cut the cord with the last visible externality in the food chain: the delivery rider.

I’ve delivered Chinese New Year banquets, a star fruit from a supermarket to an apartment 30 paces away and a tiny (but very expensive) block of Manchego cheese to someone in a luxury block who obviously just needed Spanish cheese right there and then. All this with barely a human interaction and, in two months, averaging just HK$0.20 tip per delivery.

This isn’t a complaint. As a rider, I’m not doing the job to meet people or earn big money.

But it’s cause for environmental concern.

As a city (or a planet) we’re not prepared for the ecological cost of this “replicator economy” and the meteoric rise in consumption it will bring. 21st century earth simply doesn’t have the physics to match that aspirational sci-fi fantasy, which many people seem to expect.

Hong Kong is already seeing rampant growth in delivery vehicles plying the streets. The food delivery companies are tight-lipped on order numbers, but more publicly, HKTV Mall’s idling refrigerated trucks delivered over 1.1 million orders in July 2020.

Across the border, China’s Meitun delivered 40 million meals on one single day in August last year, at staggering environmental cost.

And further afield, trucks in New York City delivered around 1.5 million parcels daily in 2019, racking up 1,290 parking tickets from double parking every day, and contributing to the city’s huge growth in car and truck CO2 emissions (27% from 1990 to 2017).

Toronto-based Foodora planned 50 delivery robots for downtown deliveries

Cities moving to bicycles and cargo bikes is one small step towards tackling the problem. Food Panda’s owner Delivery Hero has announced electric robot trials for its companies in Canada in Sweden – very cool from a tech perspective and perhaps cleaner than vans (depending on the lifespan of the robots).

But even with clean delivery transport, food packaging and uneaten food will likely end up in landfill – Hong Kongers throw out the equivalent of 20 million apples in food waste every day, with only 5% of this captured and converted to biogas. That doesn’t figure the potential rise in unnecessary consumption from too-easy instant ordering; or the vehicles used to transport that waste away (unsurprisingly, no food company has yet developed a cute robot to transport waste).

No doubt we’ll see more initiatives from the technology companies to address this. But as HKTV Mall says, “once a customer goes online, they won’t go offline”.

The shift to online delivery is a one-way street – and, like a Hong Kong delivery rider, we’re heading down it the wrong way and very fast.

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