Inside Coke and McDonald’s new war on waste

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Inside Coke and McDonald’s new war on waste


Category: Food & Beverage

Two of the world’s most iconic food and beverage brands have launched ambitious initiatives aimed at significantly reducing waste and increasing the recycled and biobased content of their packaging. Together, they mark the acceleration of a yearslong war on waste.

  • McDonald’s Corp. last week announced plans to make 100 percent of its consumer packaging from “renewable, recyclable and certified materials” by 2025. It also pledged to offer consumer package recycling in all of its restaurants worldwide by that date.
  • A few days later, the Coca-Cola Company announced “World Without Waste,” a global goal to help collect and recycle “the equivalent” of 100 percent of its packaging by 2030, as well as to make bottles with an average of 50 percent recycled content by then.

The twin announcements signal a new era among large consumer brands to take responsibility for their packaging. It’s coming in an age of increased global concern over the prevalence of plastic and other waste materials in waterways and oceans, not to mention streets and landscapes around the world. It also comes at a time when brands such as Coke and McDonald’s recognize that their global growth ambitions could be stymied by consumer, activist and governmental pushback against mounting waste streams.

Both companies’ goals will require considerable effort. For McDonald’s, it will require setting up recycling programs in restaurants across the more than 100 countries where it operates. Currently, recycling is in only about 10 percent of McDonald’s restaurants globally, according to Francesca DeBiase, chief supply chain and sustainability officer for McDonald’s Corp. Meeting its goal means the company will have to address the dearth of recycling infrastructure in many parts of the world.

Coke will face similar infrastructural challenges in meeting its commitment to recycle the equivalent of all the bottles and cans it sells — that is, “for every bottle or can the Coca-Cola system sells globally, we aim to help take one back,” according to the company’s press release. That goal gives the company some flexibility: It can collect more than its fair share of beverage sales in some countries while underperforming in others and still meet its goal. As with McDonald’s, Coke will need to overcome the lack of recycling systems in many parts of the world where its products are sold.

Both companies’ challenges are compounded by the fact that neither controls the source of its waste problem: McDonald’s restaurants and Coke bottling plants are owned and operated by franchisees, not by the parent companies, meaning that they will have to work closely with these independent operators to ensure their initiatives achieve their goals between now and 2025 (for McDonald’s) and 2030 (for Coke).

And, as both companies have learned, the franchisees are known to push back against mandates they believe are draconian or too expensive.

The Coke and McDonald’s announcements are merely the latest steps in their efforts to curb waste that go back to the 1980s, when awareness of “overflowing landfills” helped spur the modern environmental movement. Both companies long have been the target of environmentalists and anti-litter activists.

In the 1970s, Coke, along with Pepsi and other beverage companies, introduced recycling while simultaneously battling communities seeking to impose deposit schemes to increase the takeback of bottles and cans to reduce local litter. Similarly, McDonald’s packaging, especially its polystyrene foam “clamshell” hamburger containers, was an activist target; the company banned foam clamshells in 1990 in response to consumer and local government pressures. Over the years, both companies have taken numerous steps to eliminate solid waste and to reduce the amount of material used to package their products.


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Source: GreenBiz