June 2, 2021
By Caroline Peni

Doing more with less: a survey on take-back systems for food delivery in Indonesia

Good design is at the heart of any functional system, at the sweet spot where business imperatives, logistics and human behaviours align. But if you’re not also accounting for, and eliminating, environmental externalities then your design has no place in today’s economic system.

Convenience, trust and incentives: these are 3 of the key issues that stood out from our research into the potential for take-back food delivery systems in Indonesia. The obstacles to getting such systems up and running are significant, but through discussions with consumers, food business owners and delivery drivers in Indonesia, we discovered potential ways forward.

In 2015, Indonesia was estimated to contribute about 10% of our planet’s mismanaged plastic waste (Science Magazine, paywall). As if things were not bad enough, in the months following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, plastic waste from online food orders in Indonesia jumped by an eye-watering 47%. More single-use forks, spoons, sachets, napkins, cups, clamshells, chopsticks, cable ties, bags, and straws have piled up, either in landfills or as unmanaged waste elsewhere. This is not the place for an expose on the evils of plastic waste, but if you need a refresher on the state of things, check this comprehensive overview from Our World in Data.

Enter take-back systems, a fancy term for an age-old delivery model (like milk bottles delivered at your doorstep in the morning) that suited humanity just fine until the plastic industry convinced us to trade resource efficiency with personal convenience. Basically: Unpack, consume, trash. 

Now, with the pendulum beginning to swing back in favour of lifestyles that are less destructive to ecosystems, take-back systems are back in vogue. Hello barepack and DeliverZero, among many others.

But what of Indonesia?

Good design is at the heart of any functional system, at that sweet spot where business imperatives, logistics and human behaviours align. But we also believe that if you’re not also accounting for, and eliminating, environmental externalities –– in other words, damaging ecosystems –– then your design has no place in today’s economic system. 

So we set out to talk to the actors in Indonesia's food delivery systems –– the people who cook the food, those who deliver it, and those who eat it –– to find out what it would take for take-back systems to function and align with a circular economy model.

Our purpose was two-fold:

  • To identify user challenges, opportunities and requirements for a take-back food delivery system
  • To identify the specific distribution mechanism most preferred among users.

The method

Working with Nadya Humaira, a student at Graz University who shares with us an abhorrence of single-use practices and an interest in system design, we set out to talk to consumers in Bali and Jakarta (18-35 years old) who use or have used online food delivery services. We also talked to delivery service drivers in both areas, as well as restaurant owners who do food deliveries via online orders. Some of these food outlets are members of PlastikDetox, a grassroots initiative to reduce single-use plastic for restaurants. As with any research, we faced some limitations which are detailed at the end of this article.

Here’s a simplified version of the flowchart that we presented to interview subjects to get their views on how the system might work:

What we found

1. We all try to avoid disruption

A truism? Perhaps. But what we heard over and again from drivers, consumers and restaurants reps confirmed that we are fundamentally resistant to changes. The flipside of the coin is that any proposed food delivery system based on reusable containers will need to systematically remove the obstacles we identified.


  • Storing dozens of reusable containers requires extra space, but most interviewees were concerned they would not be able to accommodate that.
  • Different kinds of food/meals require different containers, prompting most business owners to worry that one universal reusable container would not accommodate their needs.
  • Cleaning the reusable containers and checking them after use would require extra time according to business interviewees. At a time when the pandemic’s economic impact has called for leaner teams that have more work to do, respondents were concerned that the system will be burdensome.
  • From the customers’ perspective, selecting a reusable box while placing an online order would require more effort and mental processing for what should in their view be a simple and quick transaction.


  • Some business owners considered that using reusables would be costlier than paying for single-use packaging. On average, the businesses we interviewed reported spending Rp 2,000 - 5,000 in packaging for each food order, which is embedded into the menu price. However, they also mentioned that the system could save packaging costs if it is well run over the long term.
  • Most customers stated that the additional costs of reusable containers would be a burden to them. 
  • For first-time users, customers tend to prefer a deposit-refund system so that they can test the waters and avoid committing to a subscription-based system.


  • Several business owners argued that the disposable food packaging they use is already ‘eco-friendly’. Moreover, most businesses stated they use paper-based packaging, with the intention to reduce environmental impacts. 
  • For the two more environmentally-conscious businesses we interviewed, there were concerns about extra water use for cleaning and emissions resulting from additional miles travelled to return containers. 
  • The business owners we talked to seemed to be generally environmentally aware, but not necessarily their customers. Half of PlastikDetox-associated businesses said that some loyal customers bring their own containers for take away orders. Some Bali interviewees reported that Provincial Regulation No. 97 / 2018 which bans single use plastic bags, straws and styrofoam has helped to educate customers on plastic use. But this process takes time, and in their view customers still prefer packaging presentation and convenience over “eco-friendly” packaging.

2. No clarity, no trust

At a time of heightened hygiene concerns and economic hardship, it was not surprising that trust came up as a big issue for consumers in particular. Here is what we found:

  • Some customers and business owners questioned who will be liable to pay to replace damaged containers once they are returned to them after an order. 
  • Simplicity was higlighted by business owners as a key principle for them to be supportive of a take-back system. 
  • Customers were unclear about how long they would be allowed to keep the container and how they could get their container deposit money back.
  • Some businesses and customers shared concerns about halal/non-halal food; and how containers, cleaning facilities and distribution will differentiate between containers used for both types of food categories.
  • When asked about hygiene, customers said that they are concerned about reusable containers because they have a low level of trust that food outlets will follow cleaning protocols correctly. 

3. We don’t want to be punished for doing something good

Rewards were highlighted as something significantly important to encourage behaviours that would support a take-back system.

  • All food delivery drivers mentioned they would consider to be part of the system as long as the incentives for picking up and returning the containers are clear and adequate.
  • According to business owners, customers are driven by discounts for online/offline purchases. Two of the businesses we interviewed run a take-back system with discounts when juice bottles are returned for a follow-up purchase. This way, customers feel motivated to return for another order. 
  • Across all 3 user groups, some respondents mentioned that the additional charge for containers should be included in the price for individual food items (e.g. the container is not a separate "add on" item in the menu). In their view, this would make the ordering process more seamless and avoid making customers feel that they are paying more.
  • One established food business –– and several with a strong customer base –– shared their concern about not being able to brand themselves if they use reusable containers. This is because some customers often share images of the food they order on social media.
  • Most customers preferred electronic over cash transactions, because of sheer convenience and rewards (e.g. cashback).
  • Most customers also mentioned that using a reusable container will be good for the environment, and also likely perform better in terms of health concerns (reduced plastic and styrofoam use for food). 

The way forward

Based on these findings, Catalyze has identified several priorities that start-ups and brands in the food delivery sector should consider for take-back systems:

1. Define the market segment

  • Target a niche segment of early adopters: high-income, environmentally-conscious customers.
  • Enroll the participation of businesses offering healthy/"organic" food to appeal to early adopters. 

2. Select suitable food containers

  • Choose containers that can be stacked and used as many times as possible. This is important –– research in the UK has shown that people were more willing to reuse packaging that was durable, resistant to changes in appearance, and easy to clean
  • If your system can guarantee that reusable containers will be reused intensively, go for steel-based models. 
  • Use universal size (one-size-fits-all) containers to make food distribution easier to begin with, with a view to diversifying into different types/models later on.

3. Integrate container fee in online menu items

Include the container price in some menu items in the food app to make the transaction more seamless, e.g. mixed rice Rp 20,000 / mixed rice + reusable container Rp 30,000.

4. Clearly (over)explain the system to customers

  • Familiarize customers with payment and return systems, along with hygiene protocols.
  • Promote food businesses participating in the system to give them exposure and a competitive edge.
  • Brand containers to distinguish between halal and non-halal foods. 

5. Provide discounts on next order

By giving discounts, customers are not only motivated to return the containers, but are also more likely to order again. 

A business and moral imperative

Judging from the explosion in take-back food delivery startups around the world, there is real appetite for business solutions that will reduce waste from food take-away deliveries. But beyond the economic drivers, for countries like Indonesia where plastic waste is at crisis-point the imperative is also a moral one. Businesses involved in food deliveries, from small start-ups to juggernauts such as Gojek and Grab, must respond at a scale that transitions us quickly towards a more circular and caring economy. The more we dither, the larger the scale of the problem we have to fix.

Research Limitations

We faced some difficulties in completing several driver interviews because of the limited time they could provide to us. They also preferred to remain anonymous. This research did not allow us to identify the deposit price that customers are willing to pay for reusable containers. Moreover, this research only includes Bali-based food business owners.

About the author

Caroline Peni,
User Researcher

Peni is a multidisciplinary designer and user researcher with focus in branding and digital communication. Through her projects she has been exposed to issues such as sustainable fisheries, waste management, coral reef conservation and sustainable palm oil among others.

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