Starbucks and McDonald’s reveal their packaging footprints with the latter also announcing a major new cup deposit and return trial in the UK. By David Burrows.

During interviews for last year’s Footprint packaging report with BaxterStorey, high street foodservice brands were urged to “step up” and establish the infrastructure needed to drive a revolution in reusable packaging. The year before, the sector’s big players were criticised for shying away from global (Ellen MacArthur Foundation) and UK (Plastics Pact) commitments to tackle plastic pollution through measures to reduce single-use packaging and recycle more of what’s left. But has the mood changed?

Both McDonald’s and Starbucks recently revealed their packaging footprints. A report by WWF in the US showed that the five members of its ReSource: Plastics initiative – McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Keurig Dr Pepper and Procter & Gamble – used 8% recycled content across the 4.2 million tonnes of plastic they get through annually. At McDonald’s the figure was 2%, while at Starbucks it was 6%. FMCG brands have made similar information public through EMF’s global commitment, exposing both their reliance on single-use packaging and their terrible records in managing it.

Perhaps significantly, the report was titled Transparent 2020. And thanks to WWF’s sweet-talking we also now know that McDonald’s uses 153,000 tonnes of plastic, which represents only 22% of its global packaging (78% is fibre). Cups (42%) are the biggest contributor to its plastic footprint, followed by lids (28%) and utensils (16%). McDonald’s mostly uses polypropylene (PP), and mainly for cups, but there are “challenges in the use of recycled PP for food contact applications, including an extremely limited supply, which constrains opportunity to scale its use across product lines”. However, the fast food giant is “exploring opportunities for substitution or reuse models for small plastics, as well as reuse models for cups, is an identified opportunity”. More on that later.

Pressure eased during the early weeks of the pandemic but plastic packaging is now firmly back on the political agenda. In its new circular economy plan, Ireland has committed to a levy on hot drinks cups but wants to extend this to cold ones too. And it won’t be long before campaigners, traditionally focused on coffee cups, cotton on to this and call for others to follow suit. “Despite how we might feel about these proposals, it is important to take notice of Irish environmental legislation because, as we saw with carrier bags, Ireland tends to be the pioneer for the UK and the rest of Europe,” Martin Kersh, executive director at the Foodservice Packaging Association, told Footprint.

Through its membership of the Plastics Pact, McDonald’s is actually developing a new cup for cold drinks that can “be widely recycled in all UK paper mills”.

Starbucks should be equally wary: it uses 190,000 tonnes of plastic, 46% of which is from cold cups. Polypropylene is its polymer of choice because “it has a 35% lower carbon footprint than one made from PET, based on a comparative life cycle analysis conducted by Starbucks”. Recycling rates for PP in the US are however “close to zero”, the report notes. Environmental charity Wrap, which runs the UK’s Plastics Pact, is also conducting work on ways to increase the use of recycled PP in food grade packaging from pretty much zero to 20% by 2025.

Most brands are starting from a low baseline when it comes to recycled content. FMCG firms have ambitious targets in place through the EMF commitment: PepsiCo hopes to reach 25% by 2025 from 3% currently, while Nestlé has to go from 2% to 15% in the same timeframe. Switching thousands of tonnes of packaging from virgin to recycled plastic when oil prices are low won’t be cheap. The UK tax on plastic with less than 30% recycled content, set to come in 2022, should focus minds.

But what about eliminating plastic and other single-use packaging? The likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks have the scale, experts have argued, to deliver reusable infrastructure that is dense enough to change behaviour. Campaigners foresee towns where people can pop into any shop, pick up a clean cup and then return it the next day, either to the same location or another one. The German town of Freiberg is the long-held example of how it can be done.

But reusables have been given short shrift by fast food brands and coffee shop chains. Discounts for customers that bring their own cup have failed to drive the change that a levy could. In a trial at University Hospital Crosshouse in Ayrshire, a 10p charge for disposable cups and free reusable cups resulted in the reuse rate rocketing from 1% to 43%, with 157 fewer disposable cups used per day (as Footprint first reported, similarly impressive results have been witnessed since the Houses of Parliament introduced a 25p charge for disposable cups).

But these are “closed” environments. What would happen on the high street? Scotland is running trials to find out, while Ireland hopes to eliminate single-use cups from some towns altogether. And it seems that McDonald’s has (finally) realised the writing is on the wall for single-use plastics. Last week it announced a reusable packaging pilot with Loop. “We’re excited to assess how new reusable packaging models could work within our system,” said Jenny McColloch, the chain’s VP global sustainability.

Explaining how the system will work in an email to Footprint, a McDonald’s spokesperson said: “This unique new service conveniently allows customers to reduce waste by choosing a durable Loop-created cup for a small deposit which can be redeemed by returning the cup to participating McDonald’s restaurants in order to be safely washed and reused again through the Loop system. We want to make it as easy as possible for our customers to recycle and reuse, and with the Loop cup, they don’t have to carry around their own reusable cup.”

Convenience is key. But for others this comes at too high a cost. “Creating an entire new infrastructure inevitably brings cost into the product, as well as raising questions around hygiene when reusing these products,” said Just-Eat director of global restaurant services and sustainability, Robin Clark, in an interview for that same Footprint report. A health pandemic and a global recession makes McDonald’s move even more significant.

Indeed, for a brand that has been built on single-use packaging – and has previously been digging its heels in to keep it that way – this is big news. TerraCycle and Loop founder Tom Szaky said this was “a crucial step” to bring more reusables to more people. “The more [stores and restaurants that join] the more convenient the recollection network becomes,” he said, adding that the scheme could extend far beyond coffee cups to “other categories within McDonald’s such as cold drinks, hamburgers and French Fries”.

Szaky envisages cross-over between other brands involved in the Loop system. In June, Tesco started delivering some groceries in reusable packaging. “Over time you could purchase your grocery shopping in reusable Loop containers in say Tesco stores and drop them off at McDonald’s restaurants or purchase a coffee in a reusable Loop cup in McDonald’s and then drop off that cup to the collection point at a Tesco store,” Szaky explained.

The timing of McDonald’s scheme has slipped. In the December 2019 update of progress towards the Plastics Pact targets, McDonald’s entry noted that “in 2020 we will trial two ways of promoting reusable cups for drinks – through offering a discount to customers bringing in a reusable cup, and through a partnership with a third party to offer a deposit and return scheme for reusable cups”.

The pilot with Loop will actually start in 2021, with a start date yet to be confirmed. The number of outlets involved is also undecided, a spokesperson told Footprint. Covid is undoubtedly a factor. McDonald’s is one of the chains that continues to refuse reusable cups “as a result of the current covid situation”. Starbucks and Costa have both recently reintroduced reusable cups using new “completely contactless” methods.

McDonald’s press statement goes into detail about the cleaning system that will be used in the cup trial. “Loop’s cleaning systems have been scientifically developed, in partnership with EcoLab, to sanitise each item, which means each cup is hygienically cleaned before each use, making it as safe and hygienic as single-use cups,” the press release reads.

Speaking to Footprint earlier this year, Szaky boasted: “Walk into one of our cleaning facilities and you wouldn’t even recognise the dishwasher.” A McDonald’s restaurant full of reusable packaging would be equally indistinguishable from one today.

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