Packaging & Waste
Designing out waste, improving the sustainability of our packaging and ultimately moving toward a circular economy are top priorities for our business. These strategies support our long-term business resilience, help us to keep the communities where we live and work clean, and minimize our environmental footprint to help protect the planet for future generations.
We realize the linear economic model, where we take, make and dispose of materials can create waste that harms nature and impacts communities. That’s why we believe the future of materials needs to be circular.
One of our biggest opportunity areas is our packaging. It plays an important role in reducing food waste and helping us serve hot and fresh food quickly and safely to customers. But we know that when packaging and plastic waste aren’t recovered or recycled correctly, it can have a negative impact on our planet, creating litter and pollution.
There are systemic challenges that stand in the way of achieving a circular economy, but we want to invest and engage in strategic partnerships that advance circularity in the communities we serve around the world. As the world’s largest restaurant company, we believe not only that McDonald’s has a role to play in addressing this issue but that we can use our scale to transform packaging and waste systems across our industry.
We will use our global scale and reach to implement and accelerate circular solutions to keep waste out of nature, by keeping valuable materials in use. To achieve this, we aim to design out waste and advance recovery and reuse of materials right across our value chain, prioritizing areas where we can have the greatest impact, such as packaging.
Progress in Sustainable Packaging and Recycling
When it comes to our packaging, we look at all aspects of our footprint and beyond. It’s a process that encompasses a wide range of initiatives to reduce our use of packaging, switch to more sustainable materials and help our customers reuse and recycle too.
We understand that recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behaviors vary from city to city and country to country, but we plan to be part of the solution and help influence powerful change.
- Eliminate packaging through design innovation, introducing reusable solutions and encouraging behavior change to reduce usage.
- Shift materials to 100% renewable, recycled or certified sources, and streamline the variety of materials used to enable easier recovery without compromising on quality and performance.
- Recover and recycle by finding ways to scale up systems to allow for greater acceptance of recycling, and making it easier for our guests to recycle too.
- Close the loop by using more recycled materials, including recycled plastic content, in our packaging, restaurants and facilities, and helping to drive global demand for recycled content.
The learnings and insights from this work also feed into other materials we use in our system, such as Happy Meal toys, logistics packaging, and building materials.
Tackling Plastic Pollution
While our goals focus on all packaging, our plastics strategy specifically addresses how we are working to prevent plastic waste from ending up in nature.
We believe that some plastic packaging is necessary in the food industry to maintain quality and safety. Plastic has many benefits compared with other materials. For example, it’s lighter than glass and fiber, and therefore causes fewer CO2 emissions when transported. However, we know that when plastic is not recycled or recovered correctly, it creates plastic pollution, which is harmful to the environment, and we want to play our part in addressing this issue.
As of 2020, 78% of our global guest packaging weight comes from fiber materials, with the remaining 22% made up of plastics, mainly for functional property needs and food safety. To improve capture rates and reduce the leakage of plastic waste into the environment, we are working to:
- Reduce plastic in guest packaging that is hard to recycle, is not needed for safety or functionality and is likely to leak into the environment, such as straws, plastic bags and cutlery.
- Prioritize innovation of new materials and redesign of plastic packaging to be more recyclable. We understand the importance of streamlining plastics in order to improve recycling rates. Our goal is to streamline material types and design packaging so that it’s easier for customers to recycle.
- Increase the amount of recycled plastic content used in all parts of our restaurants, where possible, to help drive demand for plastic recycling. For example, using recycled plastics in trays, Happy Meal toys and interior design elements of our restaurants.
- Partner with companies and nonprofit organizations to support the development and expansion of recycling programs for plastics.
- Partner with Franchisees to support community-level anti-litter initiatives such as consumer communication campaigns and cleanup days.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of food packaging and personal safety equipment, such as gloves and masks, which have been crucial to ensure the safety of our restaurant employees. We are mindful of short-term challenges, such as additional waste caused by disposable safety wear, as well as some increase in plastic use. Hygiene and safety are currently at the forefront of customers’ minds, and our challenge is to ensure they are balanced with long-term sustainability.
Visit our People Safety page to learn more about our commitment to safety.
Meeting Customer Expectations of Convenience, Safety and Sustainability
Together with our Franchisees, suppliers and industry partners, we invest in research and development of new materials and packaging designs, which fit our ’customers’ needs for convenience, food safety and sustainability.
In partnership with our suppliers, we have a holistic process on product stewardship, which includes continuous evaluation and robust testing for all chemicals used in our packaging. This ensures that we serve food in packaging that is both safe and functional for its intended use.
At McDonald’s we have a proud history of product stewardship. In 2008 we eliminated long chain PFAS, including Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), from all guest packaging globally. We also eliminated BPA/BPS and phthalates from our guest packaging in 2013 and in 2015, respectively.
We’re proud to take another step in our product stewardship journey with our commitment to remove all added fluorinated compounds from our guest packaging materials globally by 2025.
Being good neighbors is important to McDonald’s, which is why we're always innovating to meet our customers where they are and making new commitments as our stewardship evolves.
We also engage with our suppliers and buyers to integrate sustainable sourcing and design principles in our product specifications for packaging and other materials.
One of the benefits of being a global company operating in more than 100 countries is our ability to test packaging and recycling concepts in different markets to find the sustainable solutions our customers want. By collecting customer feedback in our restaurants, we can identify the best solutions to accelerate and scale across multiple markets. For example, across the world we’ve been trialing paper straws in place of plastic ones and running straws-upon-request initiatives. During earlier trials, some customers had challenges with respect to the ease of use and durability of the straws, but following continued innovation, testing and learning, we have redesigned them to address these issues.
In addition to packaging, we will continue to partner with our suppliers to advance circular design of other products and materials across our business. One such partnership is the NextGen Cup Challenge, which is researching ways to design cups to be more easily recoverable.
We are looking at all aspects of the customer experience where we can advance sustainability. For example, we have a global working group exploring more sustainable options for our Happy Meal toys. We’ll never compromise on their safety and quality and we are excited to explore new ways to enhance their sustainability.
Minimizing Waste Behind the Counter
Behind the scenes in our kitchens and supply chain, we are working with suppliers to reduce, reuse and recycle. In restaurants around the world we recycle kitchen waste materials, such as cooking oils, organic waste and corrugated cardboard used in packaging, all of which can be turned into new resources.
In multiple markets, our logistics providers play a key role in our commitment to reduce waste by collecting and back-hauling recyclables when they deliver supplies to our restaurants. This not only helps recycle material from restaurants in remote locations, it also reduces road mileage because we no longer have to arrange for a separate waste company to make the collection.
Collaborating to Drive System Change
Addressing waste is not a challenge we can tackle alone. We are engaging with the wider business community, expert NGO partners, political stakeholders and academia, as well as our Franchisees, suppliers, customers and our restaurant crew, to help drive change at scale.
We support multi-stakeholder initiatives to advance research and innovation and to advocate for policies that support the transition to a circular economy. We are proud to be a Principal Member of ReSource: Plastic, the World Wildlife Fund’s platform to leverage the power of business to stop the flow of plastic waste into nature. ReSource provides a critical hub to help companies collectively identify, measure and advance solutions at scale. Over the past year, we’ve shared our plastic footprint data with ReSource as part of a collective effort to find ways to reduce plastic pollution.
We are also members of the Foodservice Packaging Institute’s (FPI) Paper Recovery Alliance and Plastics Recovery Group (PRA/PRG), along with supply chain partners and other industry brands. These groups work collaboratively to increase the amount of foodservice packaging that is composted and recycled. Recent initiatives have included the creation of the Design Guide for Foodservice Plastics Recyclability with the Association of Plastic Recyclers, and work with the American Forest & Paper Association to create a fact-sheet resource for paper mills to consider recycling paper cups.
Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals
Our packaging and recycling efforts support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a global agenda to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all, in particular:
Material Innovation and Packaging Design
We are testing a range of new materials and designs in our restaurants around the world.
Giving Our Desserts a Makeover
We have given our McFlurry ice-cream packaging a makeover, eliminating the need for a separate plastic lid. The initiative has been implemented in Australia, New Zealand, India and most markets in Asia Pacific and Europe. In Europe alone, this change will save more than 1,200 metric tons of plastic per year.
In several markets across Europe and in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, India and Taiwan, we have also introduced a paper-based cup for shakes, moving away from the traditional plastic cups.
Introducing a New Strawless Lid
Across France, we have introduced an innovative new fiber lid made from certified sources for cold drinks, which replaces both the plastic lid and the need for a straw. We are encouraged by successful tests of this lid and while there are some obstacles to overcome, such as consumer acceptance of drinking from a new, less familiar material, the strawless lid could save 1,200 metric tons of plastic per year in France alone.
In China, McDonald’s has begun to phase out plastic straws for cold drinks in around 1,000 restaurants across Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. By introducing a new lid that customers can drink from directly, the move is expected to reduce 400 metric tons of plastic waste per year.
Additionally, in Latin America, as part of its strategy to reduce plastic consumption across the 20 markets in which it operates, our Franchisee, Arcos Dorados, has removed all lids and straws from cold drinks for dine-in customers.
Piloting Reusable Cup Schemes
In 2020, we announced a global partnership with TerraCycle’s circular packaging service, Loop, to test a new reusable cup model for hot beverages. The initiative, which will first be trialed in 2021 across select McDonald’s restaurants in the U.K., will help customers enjoy their favorite McDonald’s hot drink in a reusable cup, cutting down on packaging waste.
This new partnership will allow customers to reduce waste by choosing a durable Loop-created cup, for a small deposit. The deposit can then be redeemed by returning the cup to participating restaurants in order to be safely sanitized through the Loop system and reused again in McDonald’s restaurants.
Similarly, McDonald’s Germany is currently piloting a program called ReCup, where customers can ask for a reusable coffee cup and return it at partnering McDonald’s restaurant or other participating restaurants to be cleaned and reused. We also have reusables in store in the Philippines, and are trialing schemes in several other markets too.
Finding a New Solution for Plastic Cutlery
We are testing alternatives to plastic cutlery in several markets, including transitioning to wooden cutlery in Australia. In Europe, trials are being conducted for wooden and paper alternatives to our McFlurry spoons, in a bid to find the material that meets customer preferences, operational functionality and sustainability.
In France we have transitioned our knives, forks and spoons to wood. These changes, paired with innovations in the packaging of milkshakes, salads and straws, will allow our restaurants in France to reduce plastic packaging by more than 2,600 metric tons.
Optimizing Packaging Weight and Size
We are continuously searching for ways to optimize packaging. For instance, McDonald’s Taiwan is gradually switching plastic packaging and cutlery to paper and wood and optimizing packaging design to reduce waste. McDonald’s Canada, meanwhile, has switched to napkins that are 20% smaller and produced with 100% recycled fiber. Across several markets in Latin America, Arcos Dorados has lightweighted spoons and replaced plastic packaging such as salad plates with non-plastic alternatives.
By switching to fiber wraps instead of card boxes, McDonald’s Netherlands has saved 250 metric tons of packaging, while in China, we have optimized the size of our cutlery and reduced the amount of plastic we use by about 10%.
We also have several packaging initiatives in test phases in the U.S., designed to reduce materials currently used to produce a range of products, such as sandwich clamshells and wraps, napkins, McCafé hot and cold cups, and plastic car cups.
Creating the Cup of the Future
In 2018, McDonald’s U.S. joined forces with Starbucks and Closed Loop Partners as a convening member of the NextGen Consortium, a multi-year consortium that aims to address single-use food packaging waste globally. NextGen Cup is the first initiative by the NextGen Consortium, which aims to advance recoverable solutions for the fiber, hot and cold, to-go cup system. The NextGen Cup Challenge identified 12 innovative solutions for single-use cups that are functional to a high standard, minimize and streamline material use, and encourage wide recoverability.
In 2020, the NextGen Consortium launched reusable cup pilots in local cafes in the Californian cities of San Francisco and Palo Alto. The aim is for live piloting to allow the potential reusable cup systems to benefit from real-world feedback and to further test, learn and innovate. The pilots will also provide valuable insights into each cup’s feasibility, viability, desirability and circular resiliency.
The leadership exhibited by McDonald’s and other NextGen Consortium Partners demonstrates their commitment to solving a critical global waste issue and accelerating change together. Collaboration is critical if we are to innovate, test and scale the sustainable cup solutions of our future.
Bridget Croke, VP of External Affairs, Closed Loop Partners
Transforming Our Happy Meals
We have a global working group exploring the development and production of more sustainable Happy Meal toys, and markets around the world are currently testing different options:
- In March 2020, McDonald’s U.K. & Ireland pledged to remove nonrecycled and nonrenewable hard plastic from its iconic Happy Meal toys. From 2021, every Happy Meal will include either a soft toy, paper-based toy or a book.
- In France, we’ve replaced some of our plastic Happy Meal toys with ones made from paper, such as coloring books and trading cards.
- In 2018, McDonald’s Japan initiated a toy recycling program with the Japanese Ministry of the Environment to collect plastic Happy Meal toys and convert them into restaurant serving trays. As part of this program, McDonald’s Japan collected around 1.27 million used plastic toys that were turned into over 165,000 trays in its initial year. In 2019, we expanded the program and collected 3.4 million used plastic toys.
Recovering and Recycling Our Packaging
Recycling shouldn’t be a chore, which is why we want to make it easier for our guests. We have installed sorting and recycling points in select restaurants across our top markets and are implementing improved recycling bin signage to make the recycling process easier to understand.
In Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, our crew collects customer waste to sort for recycling, while in the Netherlands, we take the process off-site completely, sending customer waste to an innovative waste sorting facility.
While we design our packaging to be recyclable, recycling infrastructure varies from market to market. In some markets, we partner with municipalities, waste collectors and processors to find recycling opportunities for valuable parts of our customer waste, like plastics, clean paper, cups or bottles.
Keeping Communities Clean
Our restaurant crews across the world take part in local litter cleanups to help keep their communities clear of litter.
- McDonald’s Belgium launched the “Garbage, We Take It Personally” campaign in 2018 with the aim of reducing litter in the cities in which our restaurants operate by 20% by the end of 2023. Similarly, in 2020, McDonald’s Netherlands launched a customer campaign “You Bin It You Win It,” awarding prizes to customers who disposed of their waste correctly.
- In 2019, McDonald’s Switzerland convened crew members, senior leaders in the business, Franchisees, suppliers and guests for a joint cleanup day across nine cities, and across France, Franchisees enter into covenants with city governments to organize litter prevention and cleanups.
- McDonald’s Russia organized cleanups and eco lessons in over 50 cities in September and October 2020, bringing together McDonald’s crew, local communities and regional authorities.
We also support national organizations that aim to end littering and promote recycling in communities across their countries. For example, in the U.S., McDonald’s is a long-standing supporter of Keep America Beautiful, helping to advance their work to end littering, improve recycling, and beautify local communities across the country. In the U.K., McDonald’s takes part in local, regional and national cleanup events, with some restaurants participating in campaigns such as Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean.
Closing the Loop
We intend to expand our use of recycled materials in our restaurants, packaging and supply chains to play our role in creating market demand for recycled content. That’s why in multiple markets we’ve incorporated recycled content in both fiber and plastic packaging, such as our coffee, frappe and sundae cups.
We also always look to close the loop where we can, buying back our own recycled materials to produce new packaging, fuel, clothing or furniture.
Reusing Cooking Oil From Fries to Fuel Our Trucks
Our cooking oil is a valuable resource, even after it’s been used to cook our famous French Fries. That’s why we collect and recycle used cooking oil (UCO) into biofuel across the globe. In some markets, we are taking these efforts a step further. In Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and the U.K., for example, we use our own UCO to fuel our delivery trucks.
In the Netherlands we have worked with our packaging suppliers Havi and Neste to close the loop between UCO and truck fuel. We sell our UCO directly to Neste for refining, while HAVI buys back the same volume in the form of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a renewable diesel. This partnership has also helped reduce CO2 emission by 90% compared to regular diesel, helping meet McDonald’s Netherlands’ climate goal for logistics.
Similarly, in the U.K., together with our suppliers, we are designing our logistics and waste services with the circular economy in mind. Our UCO is converted into biodiesel by Olleco and then helps to fuel the Martin Brower delivery trucks that back-haul food waste from our kitchens. The food waste collected is then converted by Olleco into gas and electricity, some of which is supplied to the neighboring Arla dairy. The dairy supplies all of McDonald’s organic milk, which is delivered in Martin Brower’s biodiesel-fueled trucks, and so the circle continues. Over 16,700 metric tons of CO2 emissions were saved in 2019 from using biodiesel when compared to ultra-low-sulfur diesel. And that’s not all – the plant that converts the waste to oil also runs on energy generated from kitchen food waste, such as coffee grounds and eggshells.
In the UAE in 2020, McDonald’s passed a major milestone when its suppliers’ fleet of logistics trucks traveled approximately 10 million miles running on 100% recycled vegetable oil from McDonald’s UAE restaurants through the biodiesel initiative.
Recycling Coffee Waste to Make Cars
In North America, we have partnered with the Ford Motor Company to recycle coffee chaff – the husk of the coffee bean that peels off during roasting. The recycled chaff is heated and the residue mixed with other materials, before being molded into headlamp housings. Turning the coffee chaff into residue enables Ford to produce components that are 20% lighter than the traditional material and also require up to 25% less energy to produce. The use of coffee chaff as a resource shows how companies can work together to increase participation in the closed-loop economy.
Using Coffee Cups to Make New Products
We are testing coffee cup recycling schemes to find the best ways to scale up recycling and create quality recycled material. In the U.K., for example, our paper cups are sent to specialist recycling centers, where the plastic is removed and the fiber is used to make new products.
Recycling Ocean Plastic Waste
Since 2018, McDonald’s Norway has been working in partnership with a small group that makes plastic pellets from the waste marine waste collected by fishermen along the Nordland coast. The group creates products out of the marine plastic, like sunglasses, shoes and now, 100% recycled trays for all McDonald’s Norway restaurants.
We track progress against our goals through supplier and restaurant reports on packaging composition, usage and waste. We use robust digital reporting tools that are subject to internal and external audits.
As we continue to enhance our methodology and data quality in future years, we can expect annual progress figures to adjust in future reporting cycles.
By 2025, 100% of guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources.
Globally, we are 92% of the way to achieving our interim target to source 100% of primary fiber-based guest packaging5 from recycled or certified sources where no deforestation occurs by 2020.
By 2025, recycle guest packaging in 100% of McDonald’s restaurants. We understand that recycling infrastructure varies from city to city and country to country, but we plan to be part of the solution and help influence powerful change.
As of 2019, across 18 of our largest markets, we offer guests the opportunity to recycle guest packaging in over 20% of our restaurants. Globally, we estimate this number is 10%.
In these restaurants, guest packaging is collected in customer-facing recycling bins, or collected for sorting and recycling back of house or off-site.
In regions where infrastructure is more robust, we see greater progress toward our goal. For example, on average, over 60% of our restaurants in eight of McDonald’s largest European markets are already providing recycling for guest packaging.
1 Renewable material that is composed of biomass from a living source and that can be continually replenished. ISO 14021:2016 “renewable” and “Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC recycled” material; for plastic, ASTM D6866 or ISO 16620-2. Renewable applies to plastics only, not fiber.
2 Material that has been reprocessed from recovered (reclaimed) material by means of a manufacturing process and made into a final product or into a component for incorporation into a product (ISO 14021:2016 “renewable” and “recycled” material). Recycled material applies to plastics and fiber. Fiber-based packaging made from 100% recycled content must be third-party verified, unless certified under a Chain of Custody forest management standard.
3 Specifically, all guest packaging items (including hot cups, cold cups, carryout bags, folding cartons, clamshells, wraps, food service bags, napkins, salad bowls, Happy Meal cartons, drink carriers) made from paper/board sold to McDonald’s globally must be certified by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). FSC is required when fiber is sourced from the following high deforestation-risk countries by 2020: Russia, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Argentina.
5 Primary guest packaging refers to products that are used to package guest food on premises at McDonald’s restaurants. This type of packaging includes containers, cups, wraps, bags for food, beverages, napkins, and cup carriers. The goal excludes food packaged off-site, wood and limited locally sourced items.
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