Just how much packaging waste can one hardworking and hungry young woman accumulate during a week of lunchtime takeaways? That was the assignment - and the accompanying picture shows how it all can pile up.
The experiment was intended to show the consequences of office culture where busy workers are forced to rely on cafeterias and takeaway restaurants to provide their meals during the working day.
In the course of five days, I ended up with a large mound consisting of two paper and three plastic bags, four large plastic boxes of varying shapes, three plastic soup containers and five smaller containers for condiments. The pile also included a large plastic cup, two paper boxes lined with foil, a polystyrene foam tray, cardboard, plastic foil, two sets of cutlery and two chopstick sets.
Most of the containers were made of polypropylene, which has a high melting point, making it a preferred option to store hot items.
Polypropylene is indicated by recycling code No 5, which is usually stamped on the bottom of a container.
While these items can, in theory, be recycled, the items made out of polystyrene foam, indicated by code No 6, cannot. Such products, often commonly referred to by the trademark name Styrofoam are extremely harmful to the environment.
"It is a complex polymer, so you cannot actually recycle it," said Peter Milne, a Dubai-based activist and environmental educator. "I have heard it is possible to do so in some places in the United States, but definitely not here," he said. "Out of all plastic products, it is one of the most damaging."
Meerah Taryam, the awareness and education manager at Sharjah waste management company, Bee'ah, agreed. She said the material had been targeted on public health grounds as there was evidence showing it could leak toxins into food.
The National contacted Dubai Municipality and the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority to inquire whether officials check the quality of food packaging as well as the food itself. However, neither body could answer.
The experiment also highlighted the wasteful packaging practices at restaurants in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Only one out of the five restaurants asked whether items such as cutlery and plates were needed. The rest included them as a matter of course.
The most wasteful in terms of plastic was an Asian-style restaurant on the Jumeirah Beach Walk in Dubai. The starter was delivered in an oversized plastic box, larger than the one used for the main course. The order also came with three small plastic containers, storing various sauces. Another condiment came as a small dollop in a regular-sized soup bowl.
Mr Milne had a simple solution for the takeaway dilemma. "I just do not order takeaways," he said.
However, for those unable to resist, another solution is to talk to the restaurants, said Tatiana Abella, the co-founder and managing director of Goumbook, an online directory for sustainable products. "If it is a place you order from regularly, they can provide a take-back service and reuse the containers," she said.
Customers can also talk to supermarkets, and refuse to bring home unnecessary packaging.
"It is just a matter of starting to ask," she said. "If the people who pack do not receive complaints, they will continue to pack in the same way they always have."