McDonald's aims for greener packaging

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Photo by McDonald's Corp.

McDonald’s Corp., fresh off news that the company is discontinuing use of expanded polystyrene packaging in 2018, now is vowing to use only packaging that comes from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.

The Oakbrook, Illinois-based restaurant giant also revealed plans to provide recycling at all restaurants by the same deadline.

“Our customers have told us packaging waste is the top environmental issue they would like us to address,” said Francesca DeBaise, chief supply chain and sustainability officer, in a Jan. 16 statement. “Our ambition is to make changes our customers want and to use less packaging, sourced responsibly and designed to be taken care of after use.”

But the changes revealed by McDonald’s left at least one environmental group with a bad taste in its mouth when it comes to what it calls single-use plastics.

“Today’s announcement around recycling will do little to change the plastics epidemic that companies like McDonald’s exacerbate,” said Graham Forbes, global campaigner on corporate plastics for Greenpeace. “It makes no sense to dump resources into recycling without making a significant effort to eliminate single-use plastics once and for all.”

McDonald’s said half of current packaging comes from renewable, recycled or certified sources. An estimated 10% of restaurants globally already recycle customer packaging.

McDonald’s, in making the announcement, lined up support of the Environmental Defense Fund, Forest Stewardship Council and the World Wildlife Fund.

As You Sow, a shareholders advocacy group that pushed for the elimination of EPS, also came out with a positive reaction to the company’s decision, indicating the move followed years of discussions.

“With this action McDonald’s has made a stronger commitment than its peers, and with a global scope. We are also pleased that the company is working to redesign packaging to reduce material volume and recapture more material value through recycling. We urge other brands to follow suit,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow, in a statement.

McDonald’s said it will working with “industry experts, local governments and environmental associations, to improve packaging and recycling practices.”

MacKerron said his group understands “companies cannot implement these actions on their own” and that change “will require significant actions to optimise so that recycling actually occurs.”

“Other quick serve brands need to work with peers, municipalities and recyclers to find ways that more food packaging can be added into recycling streams and help finance stable materials end markets where needed.”

McDonald’s — and other quick-service restaurants — have faced a daunting challenge of improving their recycling rates.

Challenges include food residue contamination, which makes processing more difficult. Separating fast-food recyclables and trash, which now typically go into the same receptacle, also is logistically difficult.

And the economics of recycling this material, in the face of more affordable disposal costs, is often a hurdle that restaurants choose not to jump.

Take-out and drive-through customers, even if they recycle in other aspects of their life, often are not used to recycling these packaging materials.

Greenpeace believes there are challenges regarding creation of a recycling infrastructure for McDonald’s stores.

“Responsible companies know that we can’t recycle our way out of this problem,” Forbes said in his statement. “It’s time for McDonald’s to step up and take on the production of plastics — not just put the onus on customers to deal with their mess.”

McDonald’s DeBaise said: “Our ambition is to make changes our customers want and to use less packaging, sourced responsibly and designed to be taken care of after use, working at and beyond our restaurants to increase recycling and help create cleaner communities.”

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