Eco-friendly solutions at McDonalds

Waste Management Review speaks to Susie Craig, Sustainability Manager of McDonald’s Australia, about the company’s sustainable packaging plan.

In January, McDonald’s announced that by 2025, all of its packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources.

The environmentally conscious push expands on the company’s previous packaging goal to have 100 per cent of its fibre-based packaging come from recycled or certified sources by 2020. The remaining target covers packaging served to its customers in menu items, which was previously not 100 per cent recyclable, certified or renewable.

To reach its ambitious target, the company will work with leading industry experts, local governments and environmental associations – improving packaging design, implementing new recycling programs, establishing innovative ways to measure progress and educating its staff and customers on sustainability.

It’s been a more than 25-year journey for the company, which began with a partnership with the not-for-profit Environmental Defense Fund. The global partnership has, over time, eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled more than one million tons (approximately 907 metric tonnes) of corrugated boxes and reduced 30 per cent of its waste in the decade that followed.

At present, 50 per cent of the chain’s customer packaging globally comes from renewable, recycled or certified sources. In Australia, the company will hit a milestone in coming weeks, with 100 per cent of its branded fibre-based packaging made from renewable, recycled or certified sources.

Susie Craig, Sustainability Manager of McDonald’s Australia, says the process of achieving 100 per cent fibre-based packaging involved extensive planning and collaboration with the company’s global suppliers. The company became a member of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) in 2002, which helped it benchmark its progress.

Since then, the business has made numerous changes to determine its progress more effectively. Using McDonald’s environmental packaging review tool, Eco-Filter, the company was able to analyse all of its new and existing packaging formats as part of its strategic sourcing reviews until recently. The tool was progressively phased out in 2016 in favour of a supplier-managed evaluation model underpinned by a detailed packaging strategy and design hierarchy.

“Alignment is one of the most important considerations and certainly corporate social responsibility is embedded into our culture. Working with our suppliers remains the key to our success,” Susie says.

One of the challenges, she says, was boosting the availability of certified fibre for use in McDonald’s packaging.

“There was a lot of transitional change to build that certified fibre supply chain we needed. While we’ve been able to achieve that for our Australian market, being a global company, in some markets they’re working towards those last few per cents.

“At a global level, there’s a complex network of environmental organisations who we frequently engage with. On a project basis we need to be consulting locally with our environmental networks.”

Materials that were converted into fibre-based sources include salad bowls, previously made of plastic, represented a move of 127 tonnes per annum of resin packaging into a fibre-based alternative.

McDonald’s also introduced 100 per cent recycled fibre to its carry-out bags, saving around 1300 metric tonnes of virgin fibre in the first quarter proceeding the change in 2016 – the equivalent of saving 22,100 trees. The raw material in making the carry-out bag is recovered paper, converted in the mill to pulp and de-inked pulp.

The company’s array of networks include its partner, the Forest Stewardship Council, which helps it source ecofriendly packaging.

“There’s a percentage of our packaging sourced locally within Australian forests and a range of other sourcing regions. Around 74 per cent of all of our packaging by volume is fibre and we have made great progress against that goal, so it’s just about tackling that final 26 per cent and focusing on the balance of our guest packaging.”

In addition to its commitment to recycled packaging, the company has also pledged to give less packaging to its customers, including introducing reusable alternatives and designing packaging that is compatible with its composting and recycling systems. In Australia, its dinner box source reduction project is one example of reducing packaging, which eliminated more than 29 tonnes of paper per annum.

Its 10-piece McBites cups was also replaced by paper bags, saving more than 44 tonnes of fibre per year.

According to a report prepared for the APCO, one of the major challenges of delivering sustainable products was the availability of end-of-life infrastructure for recoverability. As composting or recycling infrastructure can be limited, McDonald’s focuses on tailoring its infrastructure within the Australian market and tailoring its sustainability packaging in accordance with those options.

“We’re committed to finding solutions for both packaging and recycling to bring us in line with our 2025 global goals. However, we acknowledge that the availability of packaging materials and recycling infrastructure in Australia is just not quite there at this stage. We’re working on what we can do to make a genuine impact and this will take time,” Susie says.

Food safety and customer satisfaction remains the company’s first priority and therefore functionality takes priority when meeting these requirements. Due to food contact legislation, recycled content packaging is at a higher risk of legislation issues, which can constrain any future packaging with recycled content, as most of the company’s packaging comes into direct contact with food.

“It’s one thing to have a piece of packaging made of the best sustainable alternative, but if it’s not going to do the job it needs to do that’s hardly sustainable,” she says.

“If we’re looking at brand new packaging, we will always trial that in a limited number of restaurants and take the learnings before we rolled it out at scale.”

Susie says that fortunately the desire for corporate social responsibility is growing among consumers.

“There’s definitely an appetite from consumers who want to ensure that brands like McDonald’s are doing the best they can in the area of sustainability.

“Alignment within our organisation is already there. Corporate social responsibility is embedded in our culture.”