How Fast Food’s Biggest Names Are Reducing Waste
Quick, affordable, and delicious, fast food is a fan favorite in the U.S. Nearly 84.8 million Americans eat fast food on a given day, most people indulging 1-3 times a week. From Chipotle to PepsiCo, many powerful companies are working toward building a more sustainable model. Here are some of the actions that your favorite brands are taking to remain cost-effective, tasty, and eco friendly.
If there was one restaurant I could eat from everyday for the rest of my life and never get sick of, it would be Chipotle. In addition to its high quality, however, the brand has recently made major strides toward waste reduction.
For years Chipotle has aimed to reach a goal of 50% waste diversion by 2020, and the company’s head of sustainability, Caitlin Leibert, was recently able to celebrate this historic achievement. Chipotle has made immense progress from its baseline of 37% waste diversion in 2016, and has even exceeded its goal of 50%, hitting 51% last year. Though this extra percentage may not sound drastic, Leibert says its impact is noteworthy.
Given that the company is 100% corporately owned, executives have access to data from each of the chain’s 2,800 U.S. locations. Through a careful data matrix, Leibert and the sustainability team were able to single out each location, and identify which restaurants were being oversupplied. Predicting the waste stream has helped the company address problematic areas and create the most efficient solutions accordingly.
Data shows that 55% of the company’s waste is cardboard, followed by plastic lids, straws, gloves, films, and of course, food waste. With the majority being cardboard, recycling has been key to Chipotle’s success. Chipotle recycles at over 90% of its national restaurants, and an impressive 49% of the company’s total waste ended up in recycling centers in 2020.
As part of its waste diversion efforts, Chipotle has also launched programs like the Gloves to Bags Initiative, which focuses on upcycling used plastic gloves into usable trash bags. Partnered with eco-friendly trash bag manufacturer Revolution Bag, Chipotle was able to turn 375 million used gloves into trash liners. At Revolution’s plant, located in Salinas, California, gloves are cleaned, formed into pellets, and transformed into trash bags. Since gloves are made of film plastic, a material very difficult to recycle, this program was especially impactful. Yet while Chipotle has clearly made substantial headway, the brand isn’t stopping just yet! Chipotle is aiming to reduce overall waste by 5% by 2025, and intends to focus on using less plastic to accomplish this goal.
McDonalds, another beloved brand, is making similar strides toward sustainability. The chain’s Better M initiative, launched in 2019, will target five main areas of change: packaging and recycling, climate action, beef sustainability, youth opportunity, and commitment to families.
By 2025, in more than 38,000 restaurants in over 120 countries, the company strives to produce all food packaging and cutlery from renewable and recycled material. Starting in May 2020, the company redesigned the signature McFlurry cup, eliminating the need for plastic lids and straws. The new cup is made of entirely recyclable and renewable materials, and uses a four-flap design as a replacement. The company made similar adjustments that September, replacing the packaging for the Happy Meal toy with 100% recyclable materials as well. Along with these packaging changes, the restaurant will also be ensuring that suppliers comply with international certification requirements for the key bioresources. From environmentally friendly coffee practices to sustainable fishing methods, McDonalds intends to work with partners aligned with its mission.
McDonalds’ Belarus location has been a success story, and is set to reduce plastic use by more than 16 million units by 2021. All of the country’s restaurant locations utilize 100% packaging made from fully recycled and certified raw materials, have implemented contactless hand washing taps, and use refrigeration units without hydrofluorocarbons. By 2022, the Belarus locations will even offer sustainable alternatives to standard Happy Meal toys!
The Flexible Plastic Fund
Many other international brands are also working toward sustainable solutions. Several of the largest consumer goods companies in the UK — Mars UK, Mondelez International, PepsiCo and Unilever– have worked together to launch the $1.5 million The Flexible Plastic Fund. The fund intends to promote the recycling of “flexible plastics,” plastics that are difficult to recycle as they contaminate other recycling streams and machinery. Though these “soft plastics” make up over 22% of the UK’s, only 6% of these plastics were recycled in the UK in 2019.
To incentivize the recycling of these materials, the fund has created a point system for recyclers. Participating retailers will be installing flexible packaging collection points in-store, where consumers can drop off their flexible plastics. Once the plastic has undergone the complete recycling process and the item is deemed “definitely recycled,” the recycler will receive financial compensation. This system intends to not only make the recycling process easier and more accessible to consumers, but to reward them for their positive actions.
As some of the world’s biggest brands take steps toward sustainability, it is likely that even more will follow suit. By becoming aware of and educating yourself on what your favorite brands are doing for the planet, your choices could make a huge difference.