McDonald’s and Reusable Dine-In Packaging

McDonald’s has 21 reusable containers for dine-in customers in France, including red plastic containers for fries, clear plastic beverage glasses, and white plastic cups for chicken nuggets.

French law mandated these changes, which were implemented in 2023.

While McDonald’s has worked hard over the years to be more environmentally conscious with its packaging, it firmly believes that this new model “doesn’t work.”  Cost, convenience, sustainability, and operational issues related to this law are complex, and the overall impact remains to be seen.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the Fox Business article, McDonald’s reportedly not in favor of reusable containers it must use in France expanding elsewhere, by Aislinn Murphy, December 11, 2023; the Reuters article, EU countries back law to curb packaging waste, by Kate Abnett and Philip Blenkinsop, December 18, 2023; and the YouTube videos in the spotlight. Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock

Discussion Questions:

1. How does the new French law interface with McDonald’s strategies?

Guidance: When France passed its law requiring fast food restaurants to have reusable packaging for dine-in customers, this constituted a change in the legal-political dimension of McDonald’s external environment in France.

This mandate was particularly challenging for the company.  When Richard and Maurice McDonald’s started their business, using disposable packaging was at the heart of their strategy for keeping their operations fast and inexpensive. Historically, McDonald’s strategy has hinged on low cost, convenience, short processing time, and consistent quality.  Each of these core competencies has become well known to customers and drive its sales.

Today, much of the EU is focused on trying to bring sustainability into fast food restaurants’ core business practices.  For McDonald’s, trying to do this in a way that doesn’t slow down its operations or cause it to have to raise prices is challenging — and essential for its survival.

McDonald’s worries that what has happened in France may become the norm throughout the EU, as further reforms are being debated and enacted.

2. What operational changes have been necessitated at McDonald’s?

Guidance: McDonald’s did receive an exemption to continue to wrap burgers and other sandwiches in a thin disposable wrap, as it argued that trying to serve them in reusables would require containers that were too bulky or difficult to manage. It can also still serve condiments in individual disposable packaging. Beyond that, however, new containers had to be designed, manufactured, distributed, stocked, and tracked for replenishment.

In addition, new processes had to be developed around serving the food and drinks in each new kind of containers.  Wall posters were created to remind employees how to use each of them and training was required for all workers.  High speed dishwashers were installed to clean the reusables in about two minutes, and layouts needed to be adjusted to accommodate this.  RFID tracking technology is used to keep track of the usage and reordering needs for the reusables.

So far, McDonald’s reports a return rate of about 92% for the reusable items, and it says they are used about 29 times before needing to be replaced due to loss, breakage, or wear.  Special trash bins and processes for retrieving the reusables from them had to be developed and added to the restaurants, and customers had to be educated about how to use them correctly.

3. What role does customer compliance play in this process?  How do you think American consumers would react to a similar measure, were this to be tried in the United States?

Guidance: As shown in one of the videos, customers in France must sort their McDonald’s trash into four bins.  They scrape food into one, pour liquids into another, drop reusables in a third, and put any remaining trash in a fourth.   The success of France’s new law hinges critically not only on the compliance of restaurants like McDonald’s, but also on the cooperation of customers.

Most McDonald’s consumers are used to simply dumping their trash off their tray and into a trash can.  Now, they must separate and sort their garbage.  This takes time and effort.

For anyone who has ever seen other settings where waste containers for various types of trash sit side by side, not everyone understands and/or cooperates with the sorting process.  If, for instance, customers just drop everything into the trash bin, reusables will be lost or must be removed by employees.

Some reusables are being taken/stolen from the restaurant by customers.  This might be because they actually want the containers, or possibly it could happen if customers needs to leave and aren’t done eating yet.

In any event, different countries have different cultures related to recycling.

In Japan and Taiwan, for instance, people learn from an early age to carefully sort and recycle their trash, and cooperation is widespread.

In the United States, people are less accustomed to meticulously sorting trash, and often times it only takes one uninformed or uncooperative person to ruin a can full of recyclable materials, since, for instance, paper and cardboard need to be clean and free of food and beverage residue in order to be used in most recycling systems.

4. What other issues related to ethics and sustainability need to be considered in weighing the pros and cons of reusable packaging for dine-in meals?

Guidance: Sustainability issues are typically multifaceted.  It is important to try to consider all the different costs and wastes associated with a plan, rather than only looking at the most obvious, such as less paper waste going to landfill.

A few of the (many) other costs and wastes include the costs and usage of energy, water, detergent, and detergent packaging for the dishwashing system at McDonald’s.

Another significant issue is how much plastic and what processes are used to manufacture the heavy reusable containers? What systems, if any, are in place to recycle them?  Furthermore, what costs and energy usage are needed to do so?

One would want to analyze how many times the reusable containers are being used and the cost of this system, comparing the use of the heavy plastic containers to the total plastic usage in the current system.

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