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Starbucks and McDonald’s double down on helping to solve the foodservice packaging waste problem

The chains invested $10 million to expand support of NextGen Consortum and efforts to find more sustainable circular-economy solutions.

Starbucks and McDonald’s are upping their investment in the ongoing effort to reduce the amount of foodservice packaging ending up in the nation’s landfills and waterways.

The two foodservice giants have invested an additional $10 million in the NextGen Consortium, a project managed by circular economy-focused investment firm Closed Loop Partners. 

Wendy’s, meanwhile — a supporting partner of the NextGen Consortium — on Wednesday announced its move in early 2022 to clear, plastic cups that are more recyclable, starting with large cups in locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and then all cups in those regions by 2023. The clear cups will replace the plastic-lined paper cups used currently that are difficult to recycle and end up in landfills.

Founded in 2018, the NextGen Consortium was first launched to develop a more sustainable disposable cup, but the project has grown to include a push toward broader solutions for the pervasive packaging pollution problem.

That push included the pilot of a reusable container system in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2019-2020. From that, the consortium published an open-source report with learnings on developing reusable packaging systems.

Now the consortium has gone on to work with papermills, recyclers and municipalities on improving recycling systems across the country.

Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, said the foodservice industry must double down on efforts to solve the mounting waste problem, which is a climate change issue on a number of fronts.

“The circular economy is intertwined with climate because extraction is greenhouse gas generating and carbon intense. In addition, throwing this waste into landfills emits greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change,” said Daly.

The goal is to look at the foodservice packaging ecosystem holistically to identify the best solutions.

For restaurant operators, the effort comes at a time when the policy landscape for waste diversion is rapidly evolving region by region. And with a global shipping crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, many across the restaurant industry are struggling to find any type of to-go packaging, much less sustainable options.

All the more reason to develop more resilient circular models in which materials are reused and recycled, said Daly. And there will not likely be one quick fix.

“We have found it essential to support a spectrum of solutions that are both in early and established stages of growth so we can be agile,” she said. “The policy landscape is changing so quickly both in the U.S and globally, it increases the urgency of testing an entire system of solutions.”

The Starbucks/McDonald’s investment indicates recognition of that urgent need, she said. But key to that is the industry-wide collaboration the consortium represents. Other partners include JDE Peet’s and Yum Brands Inc., for example.

With the additional funding, the NextGen Consortium will continue to expand efforts to strengthen the sustainable packaging ecosystem, Daly said. 

This will include more customer research and testing of reusable packaging systems, exploring the use of other packaging materials, and accelerating the development of more sustainable packaging options and the infrastructure needed to recover and recycle those materials.

For example, Daly said the consortium is looking at the use of polypropylene, or PP, a more-rigid plastic for which there is a market as a recycled material. There is demand, but not enough volume collected to process for that demand, said Daly. So the consortium is working with recycling groups to develop grants to improve PP recycling. 

For Starbucks and McDonald’s, the investment coincides with internal sustainability goals.

Starbucks, for example, has pledged to reduce waste sent to landfills by 50% by 2030, said Michael Kobori, the Seattle-based chain’s chief sustainability officer.  The coffeehouse chain has been a forerunner in testing and implementing the use of reusable cups to replace single-use disposable

“There has never been a more critical time for industry collaboration to shift away from single-use packaging, promote reusability and champion recyclability,” he said in a statement. “We are thrilled to continue our work with the NextGen Consortium to drive sustainable solutions for our planet.”

McDonald’s, likewise, has committed to sourcing 100% of guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources, and to recycle guest packaging in all restaurants by 2025.

The chain is also moving away from virgin fossil-fuel plastics in its Happy Meal Toys and has pledged to eliminate potential toxic chemicals from its packaging by 2025.

And Wendy’s move to more recyclable cups is also an example of steps taken to divert waste from landfills. The chain estimates the cup switch will divert 10 million pounds of waste over the first two years as the brand works toward use of more recyclable plastic across its cup set.

Daly praised the move.

“All of the innovations the brand partners are advancing are important parts of a larger collective ecosystem effort to identify the best solutions,” she said.

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