The reusable to-go packaging movement in the restaurant industry has been limited to solutions developed, thus far, by forward-thinking emerging brands like Dig and Just Salad.
But now McDonald’s Corp. is taking a big step in that direction by piloting a reusable cup program in the United Kingdom. The program brings the burger giant, and potentially other large scale chains, one step closer to finding a zero waste cup solution that can be scaled globally.
“The model marks significant progress toward innovative circular packaging solutions that help protect the planet for communities today and in the future,” the Chicago-based chain said in a statement released Wednesday.
Starting next year, customers in select U.K. McDonald's restaurants will be able to choose a reusable hot beverage cup that can be returned to a restaurant for re-use after cleaning.
McDonald’s is partnering with New Jersey-based TerraCycle, which provides companies like Tesco and Ulta Beauty with solutions for eliminating packaging waste.
TerraCycle’s Loop program has developed a recyclable hot beverage cup that consumers can use for a small deposit. The deposit is refunded after the customer returns the cup to a McDonald’s store that is participating in the program.
Each cup is sanitized following cleaning systems scientifically developed in partnership with Ecolab.
“We’re on a journey to rethink how we package products to give customers options that reduce waste, maintain the highest safety standards, and enhance the McDonald’s experience they expect and enjoy. That’s an innovation challenge, and it’s one we think the Loop model has potential to help us solve,” Jenny McColloch, vice president of global sustainability at McDonald's, said in a statement.
It’s unclear if McDonald’s plans to bring this trial to the U.S., where the brand has committed millions to finding a zero-waste cup.
Both McDonald’s and Starbucks have pledged $15 million to the NextGen Cup Challenge, managed by Closed Loop Partners. The U.S.-based program seeks to create a zero-waste cup that can be scaled in a financially sustainable way for both independent restaurants and large chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks.
Earlier this year, NextGen began testing recyclable and reusable cup programs at independent coffee shops in San Francisco and Oakland.
McDonald’s said the U.K. pilot will look at consumer behaviors and impact to operations just like any other test.
“We’re excited to assess how new reusable packaging models could work within our system as we accelerate circular packaging solutions with our partners around the globe,” McColloch said.
The United Kingdom test expands the brand's recycling efforts in the region. The company said nearly every McDonald’s restaurant in the United Kingdom has recycling units for hot and cold paper cups. Those cups are sent to recycling centers that specialize in removing the plastic lining from fiber-based cups, which are then recycled into new products, McDonald's said.
McDonald’s has set a goal of sourcing guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.
"Today, McDonald’s is approximately 78% of the way towards achieving this goal globally," the company said.
Roughly 600 billion paper and plastic cups are distributed worldwide, by some estimates. Of those, McDonald’s projects its distribution to represent about 3%. Starbucks cups account for an estimated 1% of that total, the coffee house chain has previously stated.
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