Burger King, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons are launching pilot programs
Fast-food restaurants have long hinged their business models on extreme convenience. Super quick service and single-use packaging give diners an on-the-go meal with nothing to clean up afterward—leftovers go into the trash without a second thought.
But decades after it gained popularity in the U.S., that model isn’t jiving with increased awareness about the environmental impact of waste—especially plastic waste. Branded litter has never been a good look, but consumers have come a long way since they laughed Sun Chips’ compostable bag off convenience store shelves in 2010. In a recent survey by Adweek and Harris Poll, 81% of consumers said they’re concerned about littering and pollution from quick service restaurants (QSRs).
With those ideas threatening their image, fast-food brands like Burger King, Starbucks, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s are following in the footsteps of sustainability-minded establishments like Just Salad by introducing reusable containers.
Working with Loop, the packaging arm of recycling company TerraCycle, or Ridwell, another closed-loop system based in Seattle, trial programs let consumers pay a small deposit to use a sturdier container. Consumers then return the container to the store for professional sanitation and their deposit.
In a perfect world, these systems would eliminate the estimated 4.9 million tons of packaging waste generated by QSRs in the U.S. each year, according to a 2016 study by The Overbrook Foundation. Most cups, boxes, straws, utensils and lids from fast-food joints aren’t recyclable or compostable. Paper cups, for instance, often require a plastic lining to keep the liquid from seeping through, making them unrecyclable, and even the containers that are industrially compostable often end up in regions that lack the infrastructure to handle large-scale composting.
“If we can actually come up with models where we can successfully reuse packaging, there’s an opportunity to reduce the impact of packaging,” said Shelie Miller, professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan. But it’ll require significant consumer behavior changes. “One of the worst things that could happen is if companies put out reusable packaging that doesn’t ever get reused, and it’s actually treated like a single-use plastic.”
Reusable bowls have been a part of Just Salad’s business for 15 years. Consumers buy a bowl for $1 and get a free salad topping every time they use it. Adoption hovers between 20% and 25%, said Just Salad director of sustainability Sandra Noonan, but the brand is currently working on building out its rewards program and messaging to encourage more consumers across its 40 stores nationwide to participate.
While some consumers are motivated to use reusable bowls simply because they’re dedicated to limiting their environmental impact, others are moved by the opportunity for a free salad topping—helping the environment is an added bonus. Leveraging both is crucial to ensuring that the program is valuable to a wider range of consumers, Noonan said.
Just Salad estimates that if someone uses the bowl four times, it offsets the carbon footprint of producing it. The brand is considering incentives to ensure customers hit that threshold, potentially diverting dozens or hundreds of single-use containers from the landfill per customer.
Burger King’s pilot with Loop launches later this year in New York, Portland, Ore., and Tokyo. They hope to get 100 uses out of their reusable containers, aiming to make the program cost the same as its current packaging expenditures once scaled to the brand’s 7,000 U.S. restaurants, said BK global head of innovation and sustainability Matthew Banton. Once the sturdier packages break down from repeated use, they’ll be sent back to TerraCycle to be transformed into things like park benches and play structures.
“We do believe that the food that we serve can be delicious, convenient, a great value and also sustainable,” Banton said. “If we’re going to be a part of the problem, we have to be part of the solution.”
Loop has also partnered with McDonald’s in the U.K. on a pilot program that’ll launch later this year, but hasn’t yet announced plans for a U.S.-based program.
“The idea is that it truly is a system where, for convenience’s sake, you’re going to the store and there’ll be Loop drop-offs everywhere,” said Loop spokesperson Eric Rosen.
But Loop isn’t the only company creating streamlined, closed-loop recycling systems for QSRs. In Seattle, Starbucks partnered with Ridwell and Go Box on its Borrow a Cup program in five stores earlier this year. Consumers pay a $1 deposit for a reusable cup, which can either be sanitized onsite or picked up at consumers’ homes by Ridwell.
And while all these programs are encouraging, Miller isn’t expecting overnight adoption. Pilot programs are necessary to learn what consumers will actually commit to.
“If we’re trying to optimize for sustainability, we don’t want to put out a reusable product just because it’s reusable,” she said. “We want to put out a reusable product because it actually reduces environmental impact.”