With an estimated 12 million tons of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans each year, consumers and governments are increasingly looking to businesses to eliminate plastic packaging. Fast food giant McDonald’s and major supermarkets in the UK are rising to the challenge, revealing big plans to go plastic-free.
First, McDonald’s has unveiled plans to improve its packaging and drastically reduce waste. By 2025, 100 percent of the company’s guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified (preferably by the Forest Stewardship Council) sources.
“As the world’s largest restaurant company, we have a responsibility to use our scale for good to make changes that will have a meaningful impact across the globe,” said Francesca DeBiase, Chief Supply Chain and Sustainability Officer at McDonald’s.
“Our customers have told us that our packaging waste is the top environmental issue they would like us to address. Our ambition is to make changes our customers want and use less packaging, sourced responsibly and designed to be taken care of after use, working at and beyond our restaurants to increase recycling and help create cleaner communities.”
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Currently, 50 percent of McDonald’s customer packaging and 64 percent of its fiber-based packing come from renewable, recycled or certified sources. By 2020, the company intends for 100 percent of its fiber-based packaging to come from recycled or certified sources where no deforestation occurs.
As part of this goal, McDonald’s will eliminate the use of polystyrene foam packaging globally by the end of 2018, a move prompted by engagement by shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. McDonald’s phased out foam cups for hot beverages in the United States after engagement with As You Sow in 2012, but continued to use them in foreign markets. According to a statement on its corporate website, the company said that eliminating foam is an important step “that will continue to raise the bar for our system and our industry.”
In addition to more sustainable sourcing, the fast food giant has also set a goal to recycle 100 percent of its restaurant packaging. Currently, only 10 percent of McDonald’s restaurants are recycling customer packaging globally. The company has attributed this largely to differences in recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behavior from country to country, but says it is determined to overcome these challenges and “be part of the solution and help influence powerful change.”
Meanwhile, two British supermarkets have committed to eliminate single-use plastics from own-brand products — and are challenging others to do the same.
Earlier this week, Iceland, a store specializing in frozen food, committed to becoming the world’s first major retailer to replace all plastic packaging from its own-brand products with fully recyclable paper and pulp-based alternatives by 2023.
The company has already removed plastic disposable straws from its own-label range, and its new food ranges, which are set to hit shelves in early 2018, will feature paper-based rather than plastic food trays. Iceland says it will be consulting regularly with Greenpeace and its own-label suppliers throughout the five-year transition period.
“The onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change. Other supermarkets, and the retail industry as a whole, should follow and offer similar commitments during 2018. This is a time for collaboration,” said Richard Walker, Managing Director of Iceland.
“There really is no excuse anymore for excessive packaging that creates needless waste and damages our environment. The technologies and practicalities to create less environmentally harmful alternatives exist, and so Iceland is putting a stake in the ground.”
In a similar move, Waitrose has announced that it will stop selling packs of disposable straws from September 2018.
“Phasing out packs of single-use straws shows how seriously we are taking the challenge of reducing our impact on the environment,” said Tor Harris, Head of Sustainability at Waitrose. “While removing packs of straws from sale seems a small step, the impact on the environment all adds up. Instead of selling packs of plastic straws, Waitrose is working on sourcing paper equivalents.”
The company has also pledged to remove black plastic from its own-label food by 2019.
Currently, a significant amount of black plastic used by supermarkets for food packaging cannot be recycled as lasers used by waste processors cannot sense the color effectively. This means they are not identified for recycling. From the end of 2018, all Waitrose own-label meat, fish and produce will no longer be packaged in black trays. The company has already removed 65 percent of black plastic packaging from fresh fruit and vegetables.
By 2025, Waitrose intends to make all its brand-owned packaging widely recyclable, reusable or compostable. Since 2009, it has reduced its overall packaging by nearly 50 percent.
The announcements from Iceland and Waitrose coincide with a new investigation by The Guardian into supermarket plastics. The news outlet found that major supermarkets in the UK produce more than 800,000 tons of plastic packaging waste each year.
Under an EU directive, supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and Asda are required to disclose the amount of plastic they put on the market annually. However, the dirty details are not made public and the majority of retailers aren’t interested in sharing. The Guardian and environmental consulting firm Eunomia were, therefore, required to base the study on data provided by Aldi and Co-op and publicly available market share information. According to Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, the lack of data means the study’s findings grossly underestimate the amount of plastic packaging waste produced by food retailers annually.
While supermarket chains such as Morrisons and Lidl say the information is “commercially sensitive,” critics reason that greater transparency would provide companies with a competitive advantage and help drive down plastic production. Iain Ferguson, Head of Sustainability at Co-op, believes government has an important role to play in pushing the needle forward on transparency and referenced a system currently in place in France, where supermarkets are taxed less for using sustainable and recyclable packaging, and more for using materials that aren't. “There should be a fiscal system that rewards good recyclability and penalizes poor recyclability. We should be able to replicate it in some way in the UK,” Ferguson said.
Others, such as Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK, are calling for the reform of producer responsibility laws. “Under the current system, just 10 percent of the cost of packaging waste disposal is paid by business, with taxpayers left to pick up the rest of the bill,” Edge said.
Hogg agreed, saying that the existing system promotes “producer irresponsibility” rather than stewardship. “If we had a system where producers were charged fees that were modulated to reflect their environmental impact — and where the fees covered the full costs of managing packaging — we would influence the design of packaging and could specify high quality recycling infrastructure.”
The UK’s new 25 Year Environment Plan, which includes goals to eradicate avoidable plastic waste by 2042, could be the push the industry needs to settle on a more sustainable path by providing the right policy context to create long-term change.