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Consumers are concerned about the health of the environment – and the impact that companies have on it. The pressure is on for brands across categories to take meaningful steps toward more sustainable business practices. Above all else, pollution is top-of-mind, with 81% of US adults expressing concern about companies’ contribution to the plastic crisis, driving demand for alternative packaging solutions.

The rise of reusable

From takeout containers to cutlery, the food service industry – and quick service restaurants, in particular — has historically leaned heavily on single-use plastics. To try to lessen their dependency, QSRs like Starbucks and Burger King are exploring programs that allow diners to use reusable packaging on takeout orders. These programs will charge customers a small fee for reusable containers that can be refunded when containers are returned.

Fortunately for QSRs, 62% of US adults would consider a reusable packaging program. They view the programs as an effective way to reduce waste (60%) and conserve natural resources (60%). Even more fortunately, younger consumers – those most likely to visit a QSR multiple times a week – express the most interest. Three-quarters of Millennials and Gen Z are willing to participate.

QSRs may still be fighting an uphill battle

While reusable packing programs are largely supported, QSRs should expect some pushback. Not all consumers share the same level of concern about how companies are engaging with the environment – and there’s hesitation about the additional cost and effort that reusable packaging at QSRs could require. Nearly half (48%) of people that would choose not to participate in a reusable packaging program don’t want to pay any additional fees.

Beyond that, people question how effective reusable packaging will be, particularly when compared to more traditional sustainable alternatives. Recycled or biodegradable materials are supported by the majority of US adults as better options for QSRs looking to limit nonrecyclable waste.

COVID-19 continues to have an impact

As the pandemic rages on, consumers are facing a dilemma: clean versus green. Over the past year, many have prioritized hygiene first and foremost – often at the expense of the environment. In fact, hygiene concerns remain the most significant barrier for QSRs to overcome when developing their reusable packaging offerings. Of the consumers who would choose not to participate in a reusable packaging program, 55% are concerned about the cleanliness and 52% aren’t comfortable sharing packing with others.

Making reusable work

The action QSR brands take to mitigate or contribute to pollution is a make-or-break for many consumers – and brands stand to gain plenty of goodwill for phasing out single-use packaging and utensils. That said, QSRs will need to make the transition to more sustainable alternatives as convenient – and cost-effective – as possible to help diners overcome their concerns. Above all else, discounts will help drive adoption.  Almost half (47%) of consumers said receiving a discount on their purchase would make them more likely to participate in a QSR’s reusable packaging program.

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Adweek during April 20-22, 2021, among 1,084 U.S. adults ages 18 and older with additional branding insights provided by Harris Brand Platform. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

Download the full data tables here.

Matthew Feider

Author Matthew Feider

Matthew is the Chief of Staff of The Harris Poll. In addition to supporting the CEO Will Johnson, he leads the internal marketing team, investor relations, and executive communications. As the leader of the marketing department, Matthew has developed exclusive polling partnerships with Ad Age, AdWeek, Morning Brew, Fast Company, TIME, and Yahoo Finance. Prior to joining Harris last year, Matthew helped build the venture valuation business unit at Carta. He is currently an MBA candidate at The University of Chicago, Booth School of Business.

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