McDonald’s new battle over Big Mac and French fries packaging

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1990 McDonald’s ditched Styrofoam for the Big Mac, and its signature burger has been served in paper packaging ever since. Reusable packaging could be next.

McDonald’s is making some progress on its 2018 goal to use recycled or renewable packaging in 100% of its restaurants by the end of 2025, but activist shareholders are moving toward the next big target, pressuring the fast-food giant to pay more attention to reusable materials .

While hundreds of environmental and climate measures were introduced by shareholders at annual meetings this spring, one that was canceled in March was McDonald’s, which reached an agreement with shareholder advocacy nonprofit As You Sow in exchange for the company’s withdrawal proposal. agreeing to prepare a report on the implications of switching to reusable packaging.

The battle between McDonald’s and environmentally-minded shareholders goes back to the 1980s, when numerous NGOs and wider public awareness of a lightweight plastic material known as Styrofoam led to changes in the packaging of Big Macs and other sandwiches. But it wasn’t until 2018 that McDonald’s completely eliminated polystyrene in all its global markets.

The biggest changes to McDonald’s reusable packaging are outside the US

McDonald’s has made some big packaging changes in recent years, mostly coming from outside the US and following government action. The European Commission banned certain single-use packaging, including straws, plates and cutlery, and required all packaging in these categories to be reusable from July 2021, the first time the EU has specifically targeted reuse. And late last year, McDonald’s France launched a reusable plastic food container in its signature red color, though not without sparking fresh controversy over its decision to go all glass or metal.

There are many challenges that come with reusable packaging, and McDonald’s has tried to highlight this as it agrees to do more research on the economics of reusables. Last month, McDonald’s released a report it commissioned from consulting firm Kearny titled “No Silver Bullet,” which detailed several reasons why reusables may be too expensive to be the only solution. The report offers a balancing act that the fast-food giant is trying to pull off, responding to changes in European regulation when required, but also arguing that it is wrong to see reusables as the only model for responsible packaging in the future.

A lunch tray with reusable dishes and containers is pictured at a McDonald’s restaurant in Levallois-Perret, near Paris, on December 20, 2022. – From January 1, 2023, within the framework of the anti-waste law, fast food restaurants must use reusable utensils for on-site orders.

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High upfront costs, required kitchen and infrastructure changes, whether on-site or off-site dishwashing capabilities, and increased energy and water consumption all pose challenges for reusable packaging operations, the report said. The report cited the European Paper Packaging Alliance as estimating that the water consumption of a 100-fold reusable system would cost 267% more than a single-use paper model.

The report also addressed the potential negative impact on consumer experience and food safety.

“In some circumstances, plastic is the right option for containing things safely and properly, not to mention making sure your favorite food tastes good and the experience is what you expect,” he told CNBC. McDonald’s representative.

Food safety measures that can be compromised include chemicals that can come from colored coatings on reusable plastics and the potential for microbial growth and accumulation if the packaging is scratched, in addition to what consumers do with the packaging before returning it.

“In a climate where it seems like it has to be all or nothing, what has been missed in the reporting of multiple use to date is the true open scale of it,” said a McDonald’s spokesperson.

The economic case for reusable packaging

Proponents of reusable packaging argue that the economics will work.

Multinational corporations need to have reusable packaging strategies in place as part of risk management, according to Kelly McBee, senior circular economy coordinator at As You Sow, to comply with the UN’s Global Plastics Compact, which aims to end single-use plastic production. and use by 2024 under an international legally binding treaty.

McDonald’s’ reusable packaging efforts already underway in Europe show that a reuse strategy in the U.S. is possible, McBee said, adding that he expects a future McDonald’s report on the topic to “discuss how , when and to what extent the company may pursue it.” reusable packaging in the US”

What’s more, he says, other studies of reusable packaging show that over time, businesses will save money that would otherwise be spent on single-use products.

McBee cites research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which found that replacing 20% ​​of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers at least $10 billion in value-by-weight costs, saving six million tons of material.

McDonald’s, however, remains committed to the packaging’s broader sustainability message.

“There are unintended consequences of reuse in a world and in a system where we’ve made so much progress. Although reuse has been something of a bright shining object in recent times, McDonald’s has been investing in its research for a decade,” the company. said the press spokesman.

For example, there has already been discussion about converting existing packaging to primarily fiber-based options. Since 2018, McDonald’s has globally reduced fossil fuel-based plastic in Happy Meal toys 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 experimenting with reusable options

Fast-food competitors are testing reusable packaging options, including Burger King, which has worked with Loop, a global recycling company, on pilot programs to roll out a reusable system at its restaurants by 2020. in New York, Tokyo and Portland, Oregon. , customers can return reusable cups and containers to participating chains for a small deposit.

McDonald’s has also worked with Loop on reusable coffee cups in the UK. For a £1 (currently $1.24) deposit, customers can choose to use a returnable Loop cup and can even get 20p ($0.25) off their purchase. Upon returning to the store, customers can get their deposit back in the form of cash, a voucher or a new reusable cup for their next drink. At the kiosks, customers could receive a voucher or refund via the Loop app.

Burger King and McDonald’s both had pilot programs running until mid-2022, and the fast-food chains are now “evaluating the development of the platform,” according to a Loop spokesperson.

Clemens Schmid, general manager of Loop Global, said consumers want to reuse and will reward companies that do, but added that using reusable containers and cups “must make sense for the consumer and be affordable, which means is that the deposit is reasonable. “

Addressing McDonald’s concerns, he said the company needs to ensure there is enough scale and volume to use reusables to make economic sense.

Burger King did not make a permanent decision and did not provide many details about the test results.

“The pilot program has now ended and we are using key insights into guest reception and operational efficiency to identify long-term solutions for multiple uses,” the spokesperson said. Restaurant Brands Internationalthe fast-food holding company that owns Burger King wrote in an email.

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Matt Prindiville, former CEO of reuse nonprofit Upstream Solutions, who recently moved to container company Clynk, says there’s a “sweet spot to find the right incentive to drive behavior without discouraging participation or creating undue burden.”

Whether it’s through a deposit incentive or an additional discount, Prindiville said reusable packaging can not only be cost-effective, but also create a better environmental profile for McDonald’s and be a better experience for the customer.

“We generally like to eat and drink from non-disposable items. It’s not a great experience to drink from something that you’re just going to throw away after a few minutes,” Prindiville said.

While moving toward reusables will require capital improvements and staff training, Prindiville highlighted a recent report by Upstream Solutions that found 100% of 121 businesses and 11 institutional food programs saved money by switching to reusables, considering new labor costs. addition of washing products and dishes. But there is a need for standardization at scale for McDonald’s and other fast-food chains to be cost-effective when it comes to reusable packaging, he said.

Three decades after abandoning the Big Mac’s foam packaging, McDonald’s and its franchisees have moved to renewable, recycled and certified sources in many product sectors and in many countries. But the question remains how feasible it is for the company to make a bigger shift to reusables, a question that its latest deal with As You Sow calls for the company to answer by the end of 2024.

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