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In 1990, McDonald’s ditched the styrofoam house for the Big Mac, and its signature burger has been served in wrapping paper ever since. Reusable packaging could be next.
McDonald’s is making progress on the goal it set in 2018 to use recycled or renewable packaging in 100% of its restaurants by the end of 2025, but shareholder activists are moving on to the next big goal: lobbying the fast food giant to focus more on reusables.
While hundreds of environmental and climate measures were introduced by shareholders this spring for annual meetings, one that was dropped in March was at McDonald’s, which struck a deal with shareholder advocacy group As You Sow to withdraw a proposal in exchange for the company. agreeing to produce a report on the implications of switching to reusable packaging.
The battle between McDonald’s and environmentally conscious shareholders goes back a long way, beginning in the 1980s when multiple grassroots organizations and wider public awareness of the lightweight plastic material known as polystyrene led to change in the industry. packaging of the Big Mac and other sandwiches. But it wasn’t until 2018 that McDonald’s completely phased out Styrofoam in all of its global markets.
McDonald’s biggest reusable packaging changes are outside the US
McDonald’s has made several significant changes to its packaging in recent years, mostly from outside the United States and as a result of government action. The European Commission has banned certain single-use packaging, including straws, plates and cutlery, and required all packaging in these categories to be designed for reuse from July 2021, the first time the EU targeted specifically reuse. And late last year McDonald’s France launched a reusable plastic food container in its signature red color – but not without sparking further controversy over the decision not to use all glass or metal.
Reusable packaging presents many challenges, and McDonald’s has sought to highlight this by agreeing to conduct more research into the economics of reusables. Last month McDonald’s released a report it commissioned from consultancy Kearny – with the title “No quick fix” — detailing several reasons why reusable materials may be too expensive to be a one-size-fits-all solution. The report suggests the balance the fast food giant is trying to achieve – responding to changes in European regulations when necessary, but also arguing that it is a mistake to see reusables as the only model of responsible packaging in the future.
A meal tray with tableware and reusable containers is pictured at a McDonald’s restaurant in Levallois-Perret, near Paris, December 20, 2022. – From January 1, 2023, as part of the anti-waste law, restaurants in fast food restaurants must use reusable dishes for on-site orders.
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High upfront costs, required changes to the kitchen and infrastructure – whether it be on-site or off-site dishwashing capabilities – and increased energy and water consumption all pose challenges to reusable packaging operations, according to the report. The report cites the European Paper Packaging Alliance, which estimated that the water consumption for a reusable system with 100 reuses would cost 267% more than a single-use paper model.
The report also discussed the potential negative impact on consumer experience and food safety.
“In some circumstances, plastic is the right option for keeping things safe and properly contained, not to mention ensuring the food you love is tasty and the experience is what you expect,” said one. McDonald’s spokesperson to CNBC.
Food safety measures that could be compromised include chemicals that can come from color coatings on reusable plastics and the potential for microbiological growth and buildup if packaging is scratched – in addition to what consumers do with it. packaging before returning it.
“In a climate where it seems like an all-or-nothing approach is needed, what’s been missed in the reusables reporting to date is just the true scale of it,” the door-to-doorman said. word of McDonald’s.
The business case for reusable packaging
Proponents of reusable packaging say the economy will work.
Multinationals must implement reusable packaging strategies as part of risk management, according to Kelly McBee, senior circular economy coordinator at As You Sow, to comply with a Global Plastics Treaty judged by the United Nations to end the production and use of single-use plastic by 2024 under a legally binding international agreement.
The reusable packaging efforts that McDonald’s has already undertaken in Europe show that a strategy around reuse in the United States is possible, McBee said, adding that she expects McDonald’s future report on the topic “discusses how, when and to what extent the company could sue reusable packaging in the United States”
Plus, she says, other studies on reusable packaging show that over time, companies will save money that would otherwise be spent on disposables.
McBee cited research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundationwhich found that replacing 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives provides an opportunity worth at least $10 billion in weight, saving six million tonnes of materials.
McDonald’s, however, sticks to its broader sustainability message in packaging.
“There are unintended consequences of reuse in a world and in a system where we’ve made so much progress. While reuse has been kind of a flashy shiny thing lately, McDonald’s has invested in studying this for a decade,” the company said the spokeswoman.
For example, there has already been talk of converting existing packaging to primarily fiber-based options. Since 2018, McDonald’s has reduced fossil fuel-based virgin plastic in Happy Meal toys globally by 24.4% and is committed to 100% sourcing For materials used in Happy Meal toys will be made from more renewable, recycled or certified materials, such as bio-based and plant-based materials and certified fibers by 2025.
Fast food competitors such as Burger King are testing reusable products
Fast-food competitors have tested reusable packaging options, including Burger King, which worked with Loop, a global recycling company, on pilot programs to create a reuse system at its restaurants in 2020. In New York, Tokyo and Portland, Oregon, customers could return reusable cups and containers to participating chains in exchange for a small deposit.
McDonald’s also worked with Loop on a driver in uk. for reusable coffee cups. For a deposit of £1 (currently $1.24), customers could choose to use a returnable Loop cup and could even receive a 20p ($0.25) cashback on their purchase. After returning to the store, customers could redeem their deposit in the form of cash, a voucher or a new reusable cup for their next drink. At the kiosks, customers could get a voucher or their money returned through the Loop app.
The Burger King and McDonald’s pilot programs were in effect through mid-2022, and the fast-food chains are “now evaluating platform development,” according to a Loop spokesperson.
Clémence Schmid, managing director of Loop Global, said consumers want reuse and will reward companies that do so, but added that using reusable containers and cups “must make sense to the consumer and remain affordable, which means the deposit is reasonable.”
Alluding to McDonald’s concerns, she said the company needed to ensure there was enough scale and volume to make using reusable products make economic sense.
Burger King did not make a permanent decision and did not provide many details about the test results.
“The pilot program is now complete, and we’re using key learnings around customer adoption and operational efficiency to identify long-term solutions for reusable items,” a spokeswoman said. International restaurant brandsthe fast food holding company that owns Burger King, wrote via email.
Matt Prindiville, the former CEO of reuse nonprofit Upstream Solutions, who recently moved to tradeable container company Clynk, said there was “a good place to find the right incentive to motivate behavior without discouraging participation or creating an undue burden”.
Whether through a deposit incentive or an additional rebate, Prindiville said reusable packaging can not only be cost effective, but also create a better environmental profile for McDonald’s and be a better customer experience.
“We generally like to eat and drink things that aren’t disposable. It’s not a good experience to drink something that you’re going to throw in the trash a few minutes later,” Prindiville said.
While the move to reusable products would require capital improvements and staff training, Prindiville pointed to a recent Upstream Solutions report that saw 100% of 121 businesses and 11 institutional restoration programs save money by switching to reusable items, taking into account the costs of new labor, materials and increased laundry the dishes. But wide-scale standardization is needed for McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to be profitable when it comes to reusable packaging, he said.
Three decades after abandoning Big Mac foam packaging, McDonald’s and its franchisees have switched to renewable, recycled and certified sources in many product areas and in many countries. But the question remains how feasible it is for the company to shift more to reusable products, a question its recent deal with As You Sow says the company will provide an answer to by the end of 2024.