McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant company, has announced two new goals focused on packaging and recycling that it plans to meet by 2025 in each of its 37,000 restaurants.
First, the company hopes to make 100 percent of its customer packaging out of renewable, recycled, or certified sources, up from
50 percent today. This goal dovetails with McDonald’s previous promise to stop using packaging that contributes to deforestation by 2020, which is currently on track at 64 percent deforestation-free, according to CNN.
Second, the company plans to provide access to recycling in all of its locations, up from only 10 percent of them today. Many regions in which McDonald’s operates do not currently have recycling infrastructure, meaning that this pledge could have a significant impact in changing how waste is dealt with in communities globally.
Ahead of the announcement, Food Tank had the opportunity to sit down with Claire Benjamin DiMattina, McDonald’s senior director of U.S. Public Affairs, to discuss the process by which McDonald’s arrived at these goals, the challenges they predict will arise, and the impacts they hope to see from their success.
Prior to her position with McDonald’s, DiMattina was the executive director of D.C.-based Food Policy Action (FPA), an organization committed to holding legislators accountable for actions that affect food and farming. DiMattina led FPA through the development of the annual National Food Policy Scorecard, which grades lawmakers on votes and sponsorships that impact public health, food access and affordability, farmer and farmworker livelihoods, and the environment.
Food Tank (FT): What prompted McDonald’s to make this move now and what has the immediate response been? Do customers and the public think you are going far enough? Are you getting any resistance from franchisees, suppliers, or shareholders?
Claire Benjamin DiMattina (CBM): We are in the process of evolving our 2014 Global Sustainability Framework into a new set of forward-looking strategies for 2030. Collectively, we made great progress against our 2014 goals and learned a lot. We’re taking those lessons learned and pushing our goals even further, in line with our customers’ expectations, our major business priorities in the company’s Velocity Growth Plan, and our areas of greatest responsibility and opportunity to drive transformational change.
Our journey in packaging sustainability started several decades ago when we transitioned away from the polystyrene foam sandwich box in the early 1990s as part of broader efforts to minimize waste. We know our customers care about recycling and more sustainable packaging, and clearly it is a critical environmental issue. McDonald’s global packaging and recycling goals demonstrate our commitment to become a better company and an example of how we can make a positive impact in the communities we serve.
We’re taking the opportunity to bring together our existing work on sustainable fiber packaging and restaurant recycling into a more holistic strategy that addresses the packaging lifecycle from design to recovery. We’re also taking an ambitious step forward by expanding our sustainable packaging scope to include all packaging (not just fiber).
Our approach to recycling has evolved from a volume-based goal to an activity-based goal specifically focused on customer-facing recycling. With these changes comes a greater potential to drive action and track progress.
We’re looking at these opportunities globally and thinking through how we can help drive innovation and collaboration to support local waste infrastructure improvements. From design to implementation, we can’t do it alone, and we’re excited to partner with others along the journey.
McDonald’s cannot do this alone. Therefore, it will be imperative for McDonald’s to work with suppliers, franchisees, municipalities, and other industry leaders to affect change and influence action. We’re just getting going on the new strategy—more to come in this area.
As one of the largest restaurant companies in the world, we have a unique opportunity to influence change. Our 2025 goals are ambitious and we look forward to effecting change by leveraging our scale and reach to help drive capacity in the recycling sector, innovation in responsible package design, and environmental awareness among millions of guests and restaurant employees each day.
We know it will be hard, but together with our suppliers, franchisees, municipalities, and other industry leaders, we’ll be able to affect change and influence action.
Our new packaging and recycling goals are something that our customers want. We know they care about recycling and more sustainable packaging and we believe our owner-operators are relentlessly focused on meeting customer needs, as well. We’re also providing resources like bin design, customer education, and new packaging design to help our franchisees around the world.
FT: Beyond the 2025 goal, how do you think McDonald’s will continue to evolve? How are food trends like organic produce, improving animal welfare, and reducing food waste changing the game?
CBM: Today, we’re focused on our announcement on packaging and recycling, but this is just one piece in a much broader conversation around our efforts to be a responsible leader on a variety of topics.
We want to use our scale for good and always keep raising the bar on what it means to be a responsible company committed to people and the planet. There will be more news to come later in the year, and we can’t wait to show you what’s next.
FT: How does McDonald’s respond to the criticism that your corporate sustainability platform, including this commitment to more sustainable packaging, is a form of greenwashing?
CBM: Operating in 37,000 communities across more than 100 countries, there are going to be a range of opinions about our work. We make a point to listen to our customers’ feedback and stakeholders across the system.
McDonald’s works closely with a number of stakeholders to inform and collaborate across our sustainability efforts. We are excited to partner with credible NGOs to inform our strategies and set goals, acknowledging the latest research and data. We will track and share progress against our commitments on a regular basis. And we will continue to listen to and work with these stakeholders as we make progress on this journey.
We know that there are going to be a lot open questions throughout this process. We’re depending on collaboration and partnerships with other industry and NGO partners to ensure we are collectively making progress.
FT: What were some of the challenges that McDonald’s learned from while achieving 50 percent of guest packaging coming from renewable, recycled, or certified sources?
CBM: Packaging represents a large and complex supply chain. Partnership and engagement with stakeholders from forest land owners through processers and distributers is paramount to achieving these goals. Reaching our targets is an evolving and iterative process that requires continual engagement, learning, and partnering across the supply chain in order to be effective.
The sourcing of materials is just one part of sustainability with packaging. Our new approach addresses both ends of the life cycle—design, sourcing, and recovery—whereas our prior packaging goal was focused only on sourcing. We’ve taken this approach because while we can design for packaging to be recycled, we depend on infrastructure for recycling and on guests to participate in recycling programs, at restaurants and in communities.
As described in our 2016 packaging report that you can access here, making progress on any sustainability issue hinges on a collaborative approach. Sustainable fiber sourcing is no exception. So we work closely with experts, industry leaders, and producers—large and small—to identify lasting solutions and make them a reality.
A great example of this is our participation in WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN). McDonald’s joined GFTN in October 2014 as the group’s first global restaurant company member. The GFTN is an initiative convened by WWF to bring together companies across the global forests product supply chain with a shared goal of eliminating illegal logging, improving forest management, and making the global marketplace for forest products a force for social and environmental responsibility.
McDonald’s participation in GFTN brings us access to technical experts and industry leaders to help us achieve our 2020 fiber-sourcing goal and our Commitment on Forests. In return, we bring to GFTN our global reach and influence to help WWF expand their protection of global forests and increase demand for and awareness of responsible forestry practices, particularly those detailed within FSC forest certification standards. We also commit to setting and reporting annually against our fiber-sourcing targets.
FT: How will McDonald’s eliminate deforestation from their fiber-based packaging supply chain
CMB: As with all aspects of our sustainability strategy, we’re focused on the most high-risk—and high-impact—areas of fiber sourcing to drive progress. In 2015, we continued our collaboration with WWF to map the majority of our consumer-facing paper packaging fiber supply chain against countries where pulp plantations for paper are known drivers of deforestation. As of 2014, we found that less than 12 percent of the fiber for our consumer packaging may have come from these high-risk countries. To address this risk and to avoid deforestation in our packaging supply chain, we will prioritize pursuing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for any fiber sources from these high-risk countries, and achieve that by 2020 at the latest.
We’ve made significant progress on fiber-based packaging, which comprises around 80 percent of what we use. As of 2016, 64 percent of our fiber packaging comes from certified or recycled sources.
Although the majority of our packaging is fiber-based, approximately 20 percent remains in plastic mainly for functional property needs. Now, we are expanding our goal to include renewable and recycled plastics. This is an important area for innovative solutions going forward.
FT: How does McDonald’s plan to confront the fact that recycling infrastructure is different in every municipality, and non-existent in many?
CMB: We acknowledge that recycling infrastructure, regulations, and consumer behaviors vary city to city and country to country, requiring a variety of solutions. As a baseline, we will work with our franchisees to phase in sorting and recycling options, beginning with the most practical solutions, such as adding options for recycling one material such as paper cups, and eventually expanding the program to recycle paper, plastics, and cans where relevant.
McDonald’s cannot do this alone, therefore it will be imperative for McDonald’s to work with suppliers, franchisees, municipalities, and other industry leaders to affect change and influence action. McDonald’s is working with communities and engaging in partnerships to reach these goals. In markets without recycling infrastructure, we will implement a plan that includes:
- Establishing a market lead devoted to recycling and packaging efforts
- Conducting a market assessment of infrastructure and exploring the viability of recycling via backhauling with distribution partners
- Engaging in conversations and partnerships with NGOs and other companies to advance the dialogue on increasing recycling infrastructure in market
- And developing a roadmap to establish recycling in restaurants, starting with one packaging item, based on information learned from activities above
Because we have restaurants in more than 100 countries around the world, we can learn from markets that already offer recycling to understand what has worked best for them in order to help markets where infrastructure may not exist yet.
Current policies such as China’s National Sword program have disrupted the recycling market, causing prices of recyclable commodities to fluctuate, as well as the ability to recycle certain items in some markets. This announcement has resulted in some headwinds to reach our target. However, it has also catalyzed the waste industry to innovate and identify different possibilities for recycling locally. We will continue to partner with other businesses and NGOs to advance the circular economy.