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McDonald’s resists EU push to mandate reusable packaging

The restaurant industry’s heavy investments in eco-friendly packaging have left some reluctant to pivot in a different direction. (AP pic)

BRUSSEL: Fast-food companies are pushing back against European Union proposals to require all restaurants to use reusable materials for serving dine in customers, warning that early experiences with reuse aren’t promising.

McDonald’s said that after spending years reducing the use of environmentally harmful plastics in its restaurants by focusing on recycling and recyclable packaging, the EU plan would amount to a reversal.

“We’ve basically eliminated plastic from our restaurants,” Jon Banner, the global chief impact officer for McDonald’s, said in a recent interview. “Now, as a result of reuse, we’re going to have to end up reintroducing plastic to our restaurants with the goal of having it be reused and reused and reused.”

McDonald’s Corp has experimented with offering reusable cups in several European countries, and says that many of them simply disappear. That’s the case in Germany, where customers who select reusable materials pay a €2 (US$2.10) deposit, but only 40% of cups return to restaurants.

The initial results in the Netherlands are even more discouraging, with only 25% coming back despite a €1 deposit.

Currently, nearly all — 94% — of the company’s packaging in Europe is fiber-based, mostly from wood fibers. Plastic is still used in liners for hot and cold cups, but McDonald’s is developing a plastic-free cup too, Banner said.

Last year, the EU’s executive arm proposed sweeping rules that would mandate widespread use of reusable materials, even for takeaway food. This spring, although the targets for takeaway packaging were stripped out in the parliament’s latest version, the proposal would still includes mandates for food consumed inside quick-service restaurants.

The European Parliament’s environment committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Oct 24. Once the full parliament approves, it becomes the parliament’s official negotiating position. EU member states are still developing their own position, which means a final law is likely several months away at the earliest.

Environmental groups are pushing hard for the EU to press ahead with its reuse plan.

“Recycling is not a silver bullet to fixing our waste problem,” said Tatiana Luján, the material systems lead for ClientEarth, a an environmental law non-profit.

“The benefits of reuse materials are that they help to close the waste loop, producing and using less material over time. The commission’s proposal is giving the industry 17 years to prepare to sell 40% of takeaway food in reusable containers, which allows ample time for business to adjust.”

McDonald’s research suggests cups need to be reused 50 to 100 times to make them preferable environmentally to single-use products. “We’re not getting anywhere near that in the real-life experience,” Banner said.

In France, he added, where some reusable packaging became mandatory earlier this year, those items are used fewer than 29 times on average, with customers keeping many or throwing them away.

In recent years, the restaurant industry has invested heavily in recyclable and biodegradable packaging, and some companies aren’t happy about having to pivot away from that.

“They have built in some parts of Europe very aggressive recycling schemes that have worked, and they’ve educated schoolchildren,” Banner said. “It’s sort of become a way of life.”

Moving toward reusables would also force significant expenditure on refitting restaurants with more dish-washing facilities, which would increase the amount of water. And the extra electricity use could make it more difficult for McDonald’s to hit net zero by 2050, Banner added.

Luján disputed the claims about water use.

“Making a single-use coffee cup requires an average of 1.3 liters of water, while the cleaning of a reusable cup only uses about 150 milliliters of water,” she said