McDonald’s Promises 100 Percent Sustainable Packaging by 2025. All Evian Water Bottles to Be Part of a Closed Loop System by 2025

Leon Kaye

McDonald’s has come a long way since those infamous Styrofoam clamshell containers of a generation ago. The world’s largest fast food company announced this week that by 2025, all of its packaging will be made from recycled, renewable or certified sources. McDonald’s was short on specifics, but it said Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification will be the preferred standard for such materials; by 2020, the company has pledged that all of its fiber-based packaging will either be recycled or certified and not have any ties to deforestation.

Currently, McDonald’s claims that half of its consumer packaging is made out of recycled, renewable or certified materials, while 64 percent of its fiber-based packaging is derived from certified or recycled sourcing. Worldwide, the company says 10 percent of its restaurants are recycling food packaging.

Critics of the company will question why it has to take so long for all of McDonald’s 37,000 locations across to globe to move away from packaging made from virgin or non-traceable materials. In fairness, however, the company will have plenty of work within its supply chain to ensure this promise becomes a reality. Moreover, McDonald’s will also have to gingerly cajole franchisees who may not necessarily buy into this shift at first.

Long seen as the poster child of excesses such as processed food and factory farming, McDonald’s has undergone a slow but steady transformation in recent years. Its changes have included just about every trend imaginable, from cage-free eggs to organic beef and even a “natural” makeover for its Chicken McNuggets. The Illinois-based burger giant really had no choice, as in recent years it had flailed along with other fast-food chains as younger consumers flocked to more “ethical” alternatives such as Chipotle (of which McDonald’s was an early investor), Panera Bread and sweetgreen.

But in recent months, McDonald’s has been on the rebound, buoyed by several strategic decisions that panned out well for the company, from its launch of the all-day breakfast menu to selling off many company-owned stores to franchisees. It also has not hurt that the company has long ditched the drab mansard roofed restaurants that over the years, became rank on the inside and outside appeared as eyesores from the road. Now many locations open, airy and are actually inviting inside, rather than a place out of which one wants to rush as soon as possible.

The road to improved waste diversion has been a long one for McDonald’s, dating back to a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that started in 1990. Consumer outrage back then over the company’s wasteful packaging led to the use of more recycled materials, less fiber in items such as napkins and the unbleached paper bags that have long been standard at its restaurants. EDF claims that this partnership alone reduced McDonald’s volume of sandwich packaging by up to 90 percent; and as a reminder how hard it can be for a company to change, the NGO has said the shift from foam to paper coffee cups took 23 years.

Now, almost 30 years later, the Golden Arches are primed to make another big step, in a case study of how partnerships with NGOs can work and drive change within an industry.

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Evian, the brand that long ago made bottled water chic and opened the door for more competitors to flood the market, announced yesterday that all of its plastic bottles will be made from 100 percent recycled plastic by 2025.

The news was first shared on Twitter by Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone, which traces its ownership of Evian back to 1970. It follows last year’s announcement that Evian would become carbon neutral by 2020.

In order to reach this waste diversion goal, Evian will partner with organizations including The Ocean CleanupEllen MacArthur Foundation and Loop Industries. Aligned with this initiative are programs that will aim to change consumer behavior, boost recycling initiatives and strive to eliminate the plastic trash that is ending up in the world’s oceans at a rapid clip.

The key to this zero waste shift becoming successful is finding the technology that will allow for those pesky PET bottles to be recycled again and again into sturdy new bottles. That is where Loop Industries steps in. Currently, many of the PET bottles that end up in recycling streams end up as fabric or upholstery in their second life. As explained on Fast Company, one huge challenge to expanded PET recycling is that the resulting material in time ends up as a lower grade material, which makes a second life as a consumer product a challenge.

Of course, even if this project comes to fruition in the next seven years, the results still may not mollify critics of the bottled water industry: after all, it still means heavy cases of bottled water will be shipped across the oceans, a journey that leaves behind its own significant carbon footprint.

Nevertheless, a future circular economy that helps reduce the amount of plastic ending up in oceans could improve the reputation of the bottled water industry and conserve some landfill space as well. Every time beverage companies tout their sustainability street cred, critics of the sector repeat what they say is a wide array of problems, from bottled water’s cost compared to drinking water straight from the tap to the optics of drawing water in regions affected by drought.

To Evian’s credit, the brand has succeeded at showing that it can function as a more responsible company. Over the years, Evian has redesigned its bottle in a move to reduce the amount of materials consumed by its supply chain. Furthermore, while much of the process involved with the bottling of its water can now rely on automation, the company retrained its workers at one bottling plant so it would not have to reduce its workforce.

Nevertheless, Evian’s move will have to be matched my many companies if the global beverage and bottled water sector can reduce its overall environmental impact. As pointed out last year on publications such as Forbes, the world manufactures one million plastic bottles a minute – hence any closed loop system is going to have to cast an impossibly wide net.