More than two decades ago, a burger-slinging juggernaut embarked on a recycling venture that, while unseen by patrons, was intended to set the precedent for multinational eateries. In 1991, McDonald’s hoped its golden arches would soon symbolize the new-age approach of corporate responsibility in regards to food and packaging reuse and recycling. Ronald and crew teamed up with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund to unleash an expansive program titled “McDonald’s Corporation – Environmental Defense Waste Reduction Task Force” aimed at finding eco-friendly ways to dispose of the unfathomable amount of packaging required in daily operations to feed the masses. Which, by the way, is in the “billions and billions.”
McDonald's recycling initiatives go far beyond the restaurant bins.
The main focus of the task force was to reduce and/or reuse as much material as possible required to package, store and transport the countless number of buns, burger, fries, napkins, etc. within the U.S. The approach was as follows:
The task force examined in detail only McDonald’s materials use and solid waste issues in its U.S. operations, including its restaurants, distribution centers and suppliers. We took broader environmental impacts into consideration, in part to ensure that changes resulting in solid waste reductions would not create or exacerbate other negative environmental impacts.
Reading further, some interesting numbers will make your head spin: Even at that time, there were more than 8,500 Mickey D restaurants in the U.S. alone, and nearly 600 independent food, packaging and equipment suppliers worked with McDonald’s nationwide. Twenty years later, that number has certainly increased, which puts a lot of responsibility on both parties. So, how did the worldwide pinnacle of patties and shakes aim to make its operations greener? An emphasis was put on reducing waste by swapping disposable packaging with reusable containers, particularly in regards to bulk storage. This approach was implemented for condiment packets, cleaning supplies, durable shipping pallets used at distribution centers and reusable coffee filters. This philosophy also gave rise to the handy-dandy pump dispenser for dispensing condiments. Other in-store changes included reusable coffee cups, “and reusable lids for salads and breakfast entrées.” The second major waste reducer was figuring out what types of materials could be recycled. At that time, it was determined that by weight, 34% of all solid waste was corrugated cardboard. Easy fix there — recycle it rather than throw it out. McDonald’s also used its business heft to convince its suppliers to ship as much material as possible in recyclable cardboard as well as buying napkins and take-out sacks that have a “high level” of recycled content. In 1991, those levels were only 5 to 30%. Additional efforts included “homogenizing” the types of plastics used for utensils, packaging of supplies (like buns) and jugs for liquids. But packaging products aren’t the only types of materials that can be recycled. For exactly that reason, a third directive of this task force took to composting. No kidding: McDonald’s was looking into composting in the early ’90s. The study declares:
About 34% of McDonald’s on-premise waste consists of organic materials such as eggshells, coffee grounds and other food scraps. Used paper items such as discarded napkins represent another essentially organic component of McDonald’s waste.
A pilot program in the Northeast used two tests to discover the compostability of everything from new, paper-based sandwich wrappers and packaging materials to “partially separated organic materials.” That program was put into motion 20 years ago. It seems that the creators of Ronald, the Hamburglar and Grimace have been invested in reducing their need for landfill space for some time now. Yet, while the efforts listed above were surely innovative at the time, shouldn’t McDonald’s be boasting a zero-landfill operation by now? Searching their corporate website, signs are promising that they’re approaching a zero-waste threshold along with other promising accolades. Statements such as, “Currently, 82% of McDonald’s consumer packaging is made from renewable materials, and we’re aiming for higher percentages in the future” are surely indicative of moving in the right direction. Combine that with McDonald’s push to increase its buildings’ sustainability values (the 20-year-old Campus Office Building at its global headquarters in Oakbrook, IL, is LEED Platinum certified), toss in a little forward-thinking eco-friendly game plan and top it all off with an environmental scorecard, then you might be left with one of the greenest corporations around. What McDonald’s started over two decades ago with Environmental Defense Fund, if it keeps up the pace, should make a major difference for decades to come.