A Green Lesson From Mumbai about Food Packaging

by James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

This an inspirational story that describes an exemplary “green” food-supply-and-packaging system that exists in India. The dabbawalas of Mumbai practice a 125-year-old trade which involves the daily delivery of a fresh, home-made meal from each customer’s suburban home to his or her city office workplace.  The word dabbawala translated literally, is “lunchbox carrier.”

A typical delivered Mumbai meal, in levels of a stackable metal container (tiffin):

The distribution system the dabbawalas have designed uses color-coded symbols to mark the top of each customer’s personal food container. It runs like clockwork.  Over 200,000 fresh, client-specific lunch meals are delivered each day, directly to each customer’s office, at the proper time each day, with a documented 99.99% accuracy!

The system employs long-life, reusable food packaging. The more than 5,000 highly efficient workers utilize head trays, bicycles, hand carts, and the local railway system to transport the food containers. They not only pick-up a personalized meal which has been prepared by a customer’s spouse or family member, and deliver to it the correct Mumbai workplace at lunchtime, they also return the empty metal container (called a tiffin) that same evening to the customer’s home for tomorrow’s reuse and refilling.  This customized, 2-way, daily delivery service only costs Mumbai’s citizens the equivalent of $6.50 SGD ($5 USD) per month!

The dabbawalas’ graphically efficient container coding system:

The steps in the dabbawalas’ food delivery system are as follows:

Dabbawalas at Work

1. The first dabbawala receives the customer’s lunch container, at the same time every morning, from the meal preparer at the customer’s home and transports it to the nearest railway station.

2. The second dabbawala  at the rail station sorts the incoming containers by color code, routing them to the proper destination by loading them into the correct train’s luggage car.

3. The third dabbawala travels on that train with the sorted meal containers and unloads them at the station nearest their destination

4. The fourth dabbawala picks-up the specific containers at the rail station that are bound for his customers, and he delivers them to the correct offices at lunchtime.

5. At this point, the steps are reversed, as the empty containers are picked up at the offices after lunch and returned correctly to all of the customers’ homes later that day.

The average Mumbai lunch container travels 43 miles per day and changes  hands 10 times.

The food supply chain system that the dabbawalas have developed is second to none. Prestigious university business and economics  researchers world-wide have traveled to Mumbai to study it. In 2003,  the UK’s Prince Charles arranged his schedule just so he could see the system in full operation.

Dabbawala loading bicycle with 18 tiffins

The green lesson for us is that a fast-food diet is not a necessity for today’s busy big-city office worker and commuter. Fresh, healthy, personalized, home-made, dietary-appropriate lunchtime food can be packaged in washable, durable, reusable containers, such as the tiffins of Mumbai.

Equally important, we can see that it is possible for a city to design human service systems that support and encourage green and sustainable living, and that high technology and high expense are not necessarily essential for their efficient operation. Mumbai, with areas of population density up to 1 million people per square mile, is the world’s most crowded city, and yet, that huge city of 14 million people boasts a green and efficient food distribution system such as this.

With respect to food containers and their environmental impacts, there is a continuum of food packaging that we all should consider. We have ranked them, in order of ecological desirability, from best to worst.  Packaging should always be sufficient to preserve the freshness of the specific food product in question for a reasonable time and thus prevent the wasting of food. The spectrum of food merchants’ sales methods includes:

A Stainless Steel Tiffin Carrier can last for years

1. Edible packaging sales, where the product is held by its own edible “container;”

2. Bulk, unpackaged sales, where customers are required to bring their own containers;

3. Fully biodegradable package sales, where containers are made from plant sources that can be municipally composted or home-composted after use;

4. Reusable package sales, where product containers are systematically returned to the manufacturer, cleaned, and reused;

5. Recyclable package sales, where the product containers are systematically returned to manufacturers, transformed, and then used as raw materials for new containers or other products;

6. Disposable package sales, recommended for highly limited use when no better and more environmentally friendly alternative is available at the present time. Polystyrene foam containers should be avoided.

The tragic irony of today’s “convenient” food packaging is captured in this quotation by sustainable lifestyle expert David WannThe packaging for a microwave dinner is programmed for a shelf life of maybe six months, a cooking time of two minutes, and a landfill time of centuries.”

We think one of ecologist Barry Commoner‘s most important contributions to scientific literacy about packaging is his four laws of ecology, found in his classic book: The Closing Circle (1971.

Law 1. Everything is connected to everything else. There is only one biosphere for all living things and what affects one species ultimately affects all of them.

Law 2. Everything must go somewhere. There is no garbage in nature and there is no “away place” to which things can be thrown.

Law 3. Nature knows best. Humans have designed technology to improve upon nature, but the impact of such changes upon a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.

Law 4. There is no such thing as a “free lunch.” Every human exploitive action has an environmental cost.

Barry Commoner also wrote: The most meaningful engine of change, powerful enough to confront corporate power, may be not so much environmental quality, as the economic development and growth associated with the effort to improve it.

In many ways, food is one of the best and easiest levers for environmental activists to push for environmental awareness and green living. Look at the results of the following research study.


Research Study on Environmental Awareness of Packaging


Note: 1,010 British adults, ages 16 and higher; 2008, Ipsos Group, UK

Awareness of Evironmental Issues with Food Products

51% mentioned the amount of food packaging used

40% mentioned chemicals/pesticides in food

37% mentioned fair-trade benefits for farmers

33% mentioned animal welfare

27% mentioned the number of plastics bags used at the check-out

24% mentioned food miles traveled

16% mentioned the carbon footprint of the product

8%  no awareness


Wise food choice doesn’t just have to do with being mindful of the latest food pyramid or a food package’s nutrition label, but it also has to do with knowing where your food came from, how much non-renewable energy was consumed in its producer-to-plate cycle, how it was packaged, how it got to you, and who was involved in all those constituent processes.

Remember the success story of Mumbai’s dabbawalas!


About our Guest Writers:

Dr. James H. Wandersee is the W.H. LeBlanc Alumni Association Professor of Biology Education in the College of Education at Louisiana State University and Chair of the Teaching Section of the Botanical Society of America.
Dr Renee M. Clary is the Director of the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum and Assistant Professor of Geoscience Education in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University. Both are part of the EarthScholars™ Research Group and have done extensive research in the pioneering area of Plant Blindness and how to sensitise people to plants.

Links you may be interested in:

Further blogs you may be interested in:
1. Plant Blindness: What research says by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary
2. The Bridge Between Ecological Knowledge and Green Living by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary
3. Teach Me About Soil by James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary

Image Credits:

Photo 1: Dabbawalla tiffin image

Photo 2: Dabbawalla’s Container Coding System

Photo 3: Mumbai Dabbawalla’s at work

Photo 4: Dabbawalla Loading his bicycle with 18 tiffins

Photo 5: Stainless Steel Tiffin Container


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Posted by on Nov 9 2010. Filed under Consumerism, Food/Diet/Meat Reduction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “A Green Lesson From Mumbai about Food Packaging”

  1. Why don’t these very same people just eat natural foods that are easy to carry to work? Just because it only costs $5 bucks per month does not mean there is no environmental impact. I mean if these people who “buy” lunch don’t have time to make a small lunch and bring it they are just as “guilty” as the McDonald’s eaters. At 5$ per month which = 1 million $ per month gross sales, where does the money go? How many guys can deliver “lunches” in a reasonable time frame? Probably not too many! This means the poor slob riding his bike around delivering “lunches” is kept at utter low wages, because they need lots of bike deliverers! Wow, you guys are on to something, all societies should shoot for this.
    I bet a deep in depth study would show that per capita, SUBWAY has less environmental impact.

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