PACKAGING AND SUSTAINABILITY
Fast-food giants hop on sustainability bandwagon / McDonald's to replace Happy Meal toys / Burger King tests reduced-paper packaging
McDonald’s sells over 1 bn Happy Meals every year (Photo: McDonald's)
As the pandemic has revealed over the past couple of years, the fast-food industry finds ways to flourish even in the darkest of times, a facet reflected in the forever-growing demand for quick-service restaurants all over the world. Notwithstanding, the pandemic also increased the general public’s environmental awareness, and in turn boosted the need for non-plastic packaging, even if alternatives only seem environment friendly.

Fast-food brands have started paying serious heed to this particular demand only in the past few years. From the looks of it, sustainable change is slowly becoming the order of the day, even for customers buying burgers for EUR 2 in less than 60 seconds. The difference between those trying to bring about a change, and those pragmatically jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, however, remains blurry at best.

In 2019, fast-food giant McDonald’s announced its intention to replace plastic straws with paper ones in the UK and Ireland as a sign of solidarity with a sustainability movement that was slowly spreading about two years ago. But these straws ended up being non-recyclable while the discontinued plastic versions were. Cut to 2021, when McDonald’s has announced plans to reduce plastics in its Happy Meal toys by 2025, saying that it is considering alternatives like 3D cardboard toys or board games with plant-based or recycled materials. In the UK and Ireland, however, the giant already offers soft toys, paper-based toys, or books with Happy Meals. For perspective, McDonald’s sells over 1 bn of the meal packages every year.

Fast-food compatriot, Burger King, on the other hand, launched its Green Packaging Pilot Program in Miami, Florida / USA earlier this year, with plans to go national in 2022. The programme includes chip containers to be made of recyclable paperboard, plant-based cutlery, paper straws, and straw-less lids (see Plasteurope.com of 10.03.2021) that the company says could potentially reduce 500m single-use plastic (SUP) straws from US outlets if implemented nationwide. “We’re also testing two new options for Whopper sandwich wraps, which represent a 13% and 34% reduction in the paper compared to previous wraps, respectively,” the company said in a press release. “This could translate to an additional 500 to 1,500 t of paper waste eliminated annually across the US.”

Related: Brand owners lead the way in renewable packaging

In early 2020, Yum! Brands (Louisville, Kentucky / USA; www.yum.com), which operates fast-food brands KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, announced it would “accelerate efforts” up to 2022 to phase out EPS packaging worldwide at all the three brands’ locations. The move was part of the group’s pledge to make all its consumer plastic packaging worldwide recoverable or reusable by 2025 (see Plasteurope.com of 06.03.2020).

Late last year, however, China announced details from its “Plastic Ban 2020” (see Plasteurope.com of 26.10.2020), so Yum! Brands China decided to launch a series of plastics reduction and environment-friendly packaging initiatives to replace plastic packaging with paper straws, paper bags, and biodegradable plastic bags, and the company said it expects a 8,000 t/y reduction of non-degradable plastics starting from 2021. Currently, KFC restaurants in mainland China do not use plastic straws, and over 90% of them have replaced SUP cutlery with wooden utensils for dine-in and takeaway, with plans to phase out the same in all restaurants in China by 2025. Similarly, Pizza Huts in China have also done away with SUP straws and bags, and introduced biodegradable bags.

US fast-food chain Wendy’s also recently announced that it will be moving from plastic-lined paper cups, which are seldom recycled, to single-substrate, clear plastic drink cups that more consumers would be able to recycle. For the same, Wendy’s has entered a collaboration with compatriot companies Berry Global (Evansville, Indiana; www.berryglobal.com) and LyondellBasell (LYB, Houston, Texas; www.lyondellbasell.com).

While a majority of the brands look towards paper or cardboard solutions to replace plastics, Domino’s has been selling most of its products in such materials since day one. In Australia, however, the pizza brand went one step further this year and completely ended its dependence on SUPs at 710 stores. The change, the company said, is expected to save more than 2 t of plastics per year. It noted that “the move to biodegradable paper straws and wooden spoons will see a reduction in the circulation of single-use plastic by up to 2.85m pieces annually.”

Other brands like Chipotle, however, are considering more “innovative” solutions to reduce their use of plastics, like changing the colour of their cutlery. “In the past, our forks, spoons, and knives were made from clear polystyrene, which made them difficult to recycle due to material and colour,” the company noted. “Our cutlery was modified to use black polypropylene, which is less dense and therefore requires less plastic. Additionally, switching the color of our cutlery to black allows us to potentially increase the amount of recycled content in our cutlery by using any color of recycled polypropylene (versus clear cutlery, which only allowed for clear recycled polypropylene).”

Chipotle added that PP is also more readily recyclable than PS, adding that the pandemic put a damper on its plans to bring about more innovation with sustainable design in cutlery and packaging. “We’re also exploring new market innovations, including materials made from carbon sequestration practices, upcycled materials, and marine biodegradable bioplastics,” the company said in its 2020 Sustainability Report.

The “Phade” straws are made with PHA, a material made by fermenting sugar or starch feedstock (Photo: WinCup)
Instead of just replacing SUP straws with non-recyclable paper ones, US doughnut purveyor Dunkin’ (Canton, Massachusetts; www.dunkindonuts.com), has come up with a more elegant solution, something called “phade” straw. At 250 outlets in the US, Dunkin’ has been trying out these new biodegradable straws that, it claims, will biodegrade anywhere – domestic dustbins, oceans, beaches, and definitely landfills.

Phade is being produced for the fast-food giant by US-based WinCup (Stone Mountain, Georgia; www.wincup.com) – after 18 months of research – with polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), a material made by fermenting sugar or starch feedstock, or in this case, canola oil. WinCup CEO Brad Laporte said, “No matter if it ends up in the ocean, on the beach, in your backyard, on the side of the road, and definitely in a landfill where there’s lots of bacteria living, phade will have a great end of life story. It turns back into organic matter.”
Thinking beyond SUP and alternatives
Investment company Closed Loop Partners’ (www.closedlooppartners.com) Center for the Circular Economy has recently launched its Composting Consortium with NextGen Consortium members – McDonald’s, Yum! Brands and Wendy’s, among others – to identify best practices for consumer understanding of compostable packaging labelling and collection; establish when compostable versus reusable or recyclable packaging applications are most appropriate; collaborate on best practices to inform policy making; and build an investment roadmap for expanding composting infrastructure to recover compostable packaging and food scraps. The initiative is also working in tandem with Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s US Plastics Pact (see Plasteurope.com of 31.08.2020).

McDonald’s and Burger King, on the other hand, are part of the UK’s National Cup Recycling Scheme, which brings together retailers, waste management companies, and paper mills to increase the number of paper cups being collected and recycled. The scheme has increased the proportion of cups being reclaimed and created over 5,000 cup recycling points in the UK.
23.11.2021 Plasteurope.com [248666-0]
Published on 23.11.2021

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Date of print: 29.11.2021 21:06:21   (Ref: 637331602)
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