Coming clean on plastic (and all other packaging)

Collating and reporting plastic packaging data “drives change”, according to a new report involving McDonald’s and Starbucks. Will others follow this lead? By David Burrows.

Tell me what’s new. For the past three years WWF has been working with a handful of big companies to collect data on their global plastic packaging footprints and use it to “drive change” (reduce, reuse, recycle – you know the drill). In December the latest annual report for the ‘ReSource: plastic’ project was published, which included details from both Starbucks and McDonald’s, the two foodservice businesses involved. So we’ve picked through the information (and the appendices) in a little more detail.

What’s Starbucks’ footprint then? In 2021 it was 151,000 tonnes (151kt) of plastic, which is an increase of 13.4% on the 2019 baseline (133kt). Increased sales following the covid-19 pandemic are the major factor in this jump. Recycled content has fallen too, though, from 6.4% to 4.6% (2018 to 2021). More bio-based content is being used – 1.6% of total plastic, or 2,416 tonnes – but none of it is ‘responsibly sourced’ (which means it must be “legally sourced; be derived from renewable biomass; pose no adverse impact on food security; have no negative impact on land conversion, deforestation, or critical ecosystems; and provide environmental benefits – including near-term climate benefits –compared with fossil-based plastic”, according to WWF).

This means the high street chain still uses 141.6kt of virgin plastic, which is 17kt more than the baseline. There is still a lot of hard-to-recycle soft plastic in there too (10.3% of all plastic). But it is now using less of the problematic polymer polystyrene (now 2% of plastic packaging compared to 3.7% in 2018) and more of the more widely recycled plastics PET (now 24% of total plastic packaging) and HDPE (12.5%). The small amount of PVC used has also been banished. Most of the chain’s plastic is polypropylene (85.6kt), used for cold drinks. Earlier reports have noted the “challenges in the use of recycled PP [polypropylene] for food contact applications, including an extremely limited supply, which constrains opportunity to scale its use across product lines”. Indeed, WWF noted that the “availability of recycled materials continues to not match the demand set by companies to meet their sustainability goals”. 

Ok, how about McDonald’s? McDonald’s is also using 5.7% more plastic than its baseline year 2018 (162kt versus 153kt). Recycled content has dropped from 2.6% to 0.8% and none of the bio-based packaging (3.2kt) is responsibly sourced. Hence, the chain still sources 157.5kt tonnes of virgin plastic, which is 8.6kt more than in 2018. Some 16.8% of the company’s plastic footprint is also films and flexible plastics, which are notoriously tough to recycle. More HDPE and a lot less polystyrene (from 46.5kt to 27.5kt) is being used. Most of the chain’s plastic is polypropylene (98.3kt), again mostly for cold drinks. McDonald’s and Starbucks (and other fast food chains, including Burger King) have been removing the lids for these when people dine-in.

So, a bit of a mixed (plastic) bag of results, then? Yes. The tonnages have also been “normalised” by net sales or units sold and this showed McDonald’s plastic intensity has actually increased by 0.8% and Starbucks’ by 3.5% – for the six other companies, including Coca-Cola and Amcor, plastic intensity fell.

What plastics have they managed to reduce? The amount of small plastics being used has shrunk (in part thanks to bans and restrictions). These tend to be a nightmare for recyclers hence why drinks brands have begun tethering caps to bottles, for example, and why sachets are in the crosshairs for future single-use plastic bans. McDonald’s use of small plastics has dropped 27% (from 23.7kt to 17.3kt), while Starbucks has stripped out 1.3kt, so 43% less than the baseline of 3.7kt. The report also notes Starbucks’ “aggressive” testing and learning on reuse – it’s unclear who deems it aggressive, WWF or Starbucks, but there is little doubt trials and pilots are ramping up (and keep an eye out for Footprint’s 2023 packaging report next month for more on reusable trials and opportunities for foodservice companies).

How is the project going generally? It’s a diverse bunch of nine companies, including Amcor, Colgate-Palmolive, Keurig Dr Pepper and Coca-Cola, as well as the two foodservice behemoths. Members of the programme are taking their plastic waste footprint seriously, says WWF, and being transparent about how they are working to address it. “Measurement and data sharing are critical first steps,” explains WWF head of plastic waste Erin Simon. “The next, more challenging step is ramping up the pace of progress.” It’s also critical to get more brands on board. 

Will more foodservice companies follow their lead? I wouldn’t bet my house on it but you never know. CDP is for example expanding its global environmental disclosure system to include various questions and metrics relating to plastic. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is also involved in CDP’s project, posted some disappointing results for its global plastics commitment in November; but the think tank has at least raised the bar in relation to voluntary disclosures on plastic footprints, which will hopefully see more businesses better understand their responsibilities and risks related to the plastic crisis. MPs on the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee recently called on the UK government to create a taskforce to explore the role of mandatory reporting of plastic footprints. Investors, consumers, campaigners and employees will increasingly want businesses to come clean on their use of plastic and their exposure to looming risks – from supply chain crunches and consumer avoidance to bans and taxes – and even litigation

So the message is: come clean on plastic? Yes, but will any business be brave enough to publish its entire packaging footprint? Plastic makes up less than a quarter (22%) of McDonald’s total packaging footprint, for example. Foodservice businesses like these are built on a model of disposable packaging, and measuring plastic alone will only ever tell one part of the story. 

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