During my recent visit to Brussels in February, on behalf of McDonald’s, I discussed the EU’s packaging and packaging waste proposals (PPWR) with locals. I noticed that I had to clarify what PPWR was and how it would impact consumers, businesses, and the environment. Upon returning, I have noticed some changes.
In my previous statement, I expressed our desire to generate discussion on the topic of PPWR. I am pleased to see that this goal has been achieved. This is a positive development. However, both McDonald’s and our partners and competitors in the informal eating-out sector (IEO) remain convinced that the current PPWR proposal may have unintended negative effects on the environment, economy, food safety, and consumers.
According to the report “No Silver Bullet” from global consulting firm Kearney and our own market experience, we believe that a combination of packaging solutions is necessary to achieve PPWR’s goals. At McDonald’s, we are working towards implementing and speeding up solutions to reduce waste and keep materials in use. Since my last visit to Brussels, we and our suppliers have remained dedicated to investing in practices and innovations that we believe will directly address the issues being tackled by PPWR.
One important approach is shifting away from using single-use, new plastics made from fossil fuels – most of the packaging used in European restaurants is made of paper and sourced from Europe. Another crucial strategy is recycling, which is why we have been implementing systems across Europe for many years. In fact, since the beginning of this year, 355 of our restaurants in Poland have been using a closed loop waste management system. McDonald’s Poland works together with paper recycler Miklan-Ryza to develop and implement their own technology for fully recycling paper packaging that is contaminated with food, including plastic-lined paper cups. By the end of 2024, our goal is to expand this program to all of our Polish restaurant parking lots to ensure that discarded packaging near restaurants is also collected for recycling.
A public-private partnership, similar to the one in Italy, has been in operation for multiple years in collaboration with Comieco (National Consortium for the Recovery and Recycling of Cellulose-based Packaging) and is continuously being improved. This enables McDonald’s packaging to be included in the paper recycling process and effectively recycled alongside other paper waste. We are also investing in a nationwide public awareness campaign with Altroconsumo to educate customers about how their daily choices can make a significant impact. Comieco will soon release an evaluation of the collection and successful recycling rates of our packaging at McDonald’s Italy, and we are confident that it will demonstrate the effectiveness of recycling fiber-based packaging on a large scale.
For decades, McDonald’s, our franchisees, partners, and competitors in the IEO industry have been developing and investing in ways to use fiber packaging and promote recycling. This aligns with the efforts of policy makers over the past 30 years, since the EU’s original Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was implemented. However, the current PPWR proposal may undo all of these efforts by mandating the use of reusable packaging, which could lead to an increase in plastic production in Europe. Instead, it would be more beneficial to continue reducing plastic usage, investing in existing recycling infrastructure, and educating consumers on making environmentally-friendly choices. Furthermore, there is excess recycling capacity in Europe that should be utilized.
The concept of using something repeatedly may seem like the obvious solution, but it is not as straightforward as it appears. The term “reusables” itself is misleading, as it implies an infinite number of uses. However, this is not the case in reality. According to Kearney, for reusable packaging to truly benefit the environment, it must be reused between 50 and 100 times, as compared to a single-use paper cup. While reusing may be a suitable solution for other industries, our experience in the market suggests that there are unintended consequences for the environment when it comes to PPWR. For instance, in the Netherlands, where we offer both reusable and single-use cups with a refundable deposit and a surcharge respectively (as mandated by law), less than 5% of customers opt for reusables and only 25% are returned. In Germany, less than 2% of customers choose reusables and only 40% are returned, despite a deposit of 2 EUR per item. This means that, on average, the same cup is not even being used twice. These are two real-life examples where reusing falls significantly short of its intended impact.
In France, some packaging items are required to be used for dine-in purposes only and are not meant to be taken out of the restaurant. However, we are not seeing enough reuse of these items to make a significant environmental impact compared to single-use options. On average, the items are only being used less than 29 times, which is far below the recommended 50-100 times by Kearney. This is due to a large number of customers either taking the items out of the restaurant or disposing of them.
According to the independent Kearney report, No Silver Bullet, complying with PPWR’s reusable use-case requirements will result in a significant rise in plastic materials in Europe. The proposed reuse targets in PPWR will lead to four times more plastic packaging waste for dine-in and 16 times more for takeaway.
There are additional unintended outcomes resulting from PPWR:
Reusable items must be cleaned after each use. In our industry, this shifts the need for water from a few locations where single-use fiber packaging is made to all restaurants throughout Europe. This could strain Europe’s water infrastructure even further.
The creation of plastic packaging that can be used multiple times, as well as the processes of cleaning and transporting it, consume a significant amount of energy and contribute to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Kearney research, transitioning to completely reusable packaging by 2030 would result in a 50 percent increase in emissions for dine-in options and a 260 percent increase for takeaway.
PPWR has other significant unforeseen outcomes.
Reusable items must be cleaned after each use. This means that instead of water being used primarily at a few locations where single-use fiber packaging is produced, it will now be distributed across all restaurant locations in Europe. Unfortunately, many of these locations are in areas with limited water resources. Implementing a policy of 100% reusable packaging by 2030 would further strain Europe’s water infrastructure. Additionally, the production, washing, and transportation of reusable plastic packaging requires more energy, resulting in higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The Kearney study indicates that shifting to 100% reusables by 2030 could lead to a 50% increase in emissions for dine-in orders and up to a 260% increase for takeaway orders.
I returned to Brussels because we, along with others in the IEO field, were able to spark a meaningful discussion. As next year’s elections approach, it is crucial to remember that rushing towards a solution for a complex issue will only exacerbate the problem. Europe has a track record of finding compromises when faced with major challenges, and I believe this should also be the approach for PPWR. All possibilities should be considered as part of the solution, as there is no one simple solution to Europe’s packaging issue.