Circular economy requires innovation in materials and design as well as broad partnerships to tackle issues in recycling infrastructure, says Frank Heidlberger, Director of Global Packaging at McDonald’s. For businesses, customer experience remains a priority.
Within the next five years, one of the world’s largest restaurant chains, McDonald’s, aims to source all of its guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources. The company is also moving to recycle the guest packaging in every single one of its restaurants.
"Partnership across the industry is key to improving access to recycling."
The company employs four strategies to reach its targets: reducing the use of packaging, switching to more sustainable materials, helping customers reuse and recycle, and closing the loop by using more recycled materials in its packaging.
According to Frank Heidlberger, Director of Global Packaging at McDonald’s, the company is committed to using its global scale to implement circular solutions to keep waste out of nature by keeping valuable materials in use.
Changes to McFlurry ice cream packaging will save more than 1,200 tons of plastic per year
McDonald’s has already advanced circularity in its stores in multiple ways.
For example, one of its ice cream products eliminated the need for a separate plastic lid completely. The initiative has been implemented in Australia, New Zealand, India and most markets in Asia Pacific and Europe.
In France, the company has recently launched a new molded fiber lid for cold fountain drinks that does away with a straw completely.
The company has also begun using paper straws instead of plastic ones and running straws-upon-request initiatives in selected restaurants across Europe. Wooden and paper ice cream spoons are being tested as well.
Such changes might not sound big, but due to McDonald’s’ global scale, the impact is significant.
According to the company, changes to its McFlurry ice cream packaging will save more than 1,200 tons of plastic per year across Europe alone. Moreover, with the introduction of a fiber lid for all cold drinks in the French market, the company expects to reduce its annual plastic consumption in France by the same amount.
Sustainability must also deliver a great customer experience
While such innovations are obviously motivated by sustainability, in the food business they must also continue to deliver the top-notch experience that customers have grown to expect.
As Heidlberger puts it, the customers’ point of view has to always be taken into account.
"For instance, some customers had challenges with respect to the ease of use and durability of the paper straws during earlier trials. Following continued innovation, testing and learning, we have redesigned them to address these issues."
This also applies to the experimental shift from plastic to wooden or paper McFlurry spoons.
"One of the benefits of being a global company operating in more than 100 countries is our ability to test packaging and recycling concepts in different markets to find the sustainable solutions our customers want. By collecting customer feedback in our restaurants, we can identify the best solutions to accelerate and scale across multiple markets."
Government support needed to build a full circular system
Material innovation is a vital part of advancing towards a circular economy.
Heidlberger emphasizes the need to create systems that promote the end-to-end use of materials while allowing businesses to continue to deliver the products.
"Materials that are chosen for packaging must be well thought out from a design perspective. These should be able to enter a well-developed infrastructure for recovery, reprocessing and reuse in the material value stream."
To build this system, broad collaborations and partnerships across the value chain are required.
"More than likely, such a move will call for governmental support."
Recycling infrastructure must be developed to improve access to recycling
While McDonald’s considers recycling and recovery partly a design challenge, it is also a challenge that relies on recycling infrastructure, which varies from state to state and city to city.
"Partnership across the industry—including with our suppliers, NGOs and municipalities—is key to improving access to recycling. For example, as part of WWF ReSource: Plastic initiative, our goal is to prevent and eliminate the leakage of plastic into nature by 2030."
In the U.S., McDonald’s joined forces with Starbucks and Closed Loop Partners as a convening member of the NextGen Consortium and Cup Challenge to develop a fiber to-go cup that is fully and widely recyclable and/or compostable.
In the UK, the company is an active member of the Paper Cup Alliance, which works to facilitate the recycling of paper cups.
Certification of recycled content can help industry support circularity
Some challenges will involve how companies such as McDonald’s certifies the use of recycled content in creating new food packaging.
"This will be important so that the foodservice and quick service restaurant industry can contribute to overall circularity goals," Heidlberger says.
To this end, McDonald’s is a member of the Foodservice Packaging Institute’s (FPI) Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group (PRA/PRG), which collaborates to increase the sustainability of foodservice packaging.
In the future, Heidlberger sees food packaging supporting greater convenience.
"I expect raw materials to be efficiently captured after use so they can be given a new life, helping to promote a circular economy. I also foresee a range of different packaging systems and solutions—that includes disposable and reusable—addressing the differing needs of different dining occasions."