Just What We Needed: a McDonalds Sustainable Packaging Scorecard

by | Mar 28, 2011

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If you follow sustainability news you’ve noticed the wide variety of scorecards and other assessment tools launched recently by industries, organizations, digital and print media, and individual companies. Years after Wal-Mart launched their highly influential scorecard, others are finally jumping on the bandwagon and are eager to create the tool, index, gauge or standard by which all others will be judged in terms of sustainability. Most recently this includes McDonalds.

Clueless but probably not tool less

The longer I am involved in sustainability the more I believe it is neither as simple nor nearly as complicated as some choose to make it. The McDonalds score card is designed like most other assessment tools which is to judge their suppliers in an effort to make them better in terms of reducing their waste, their carbon and water footprint, and of course to generate and share the operational savings with their customer who in this case obviously is McDonalds. Just in case you’re wondering, I find absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. Sustainability is and will remain a cost reduction, profit enhancing strategy.

My problem with so many of these initiatives is that they tend to overlook the most obvious and ignore some of the most potentially beneficial basics, even by an otherwise great environmental corporate citizen like McDonalds, and even on a wildly successful product like the iconic Happy Meal. Even though recently these kid meals have been under attack for numerous reasons, my problem is with the printed, die cut paperboard carrier box that is used, usually momentarily, to package and carry the Happy Meal.

Saturday Lunch at McDonalds

Our four-year-old granddaughter’s favorite weekend lunch is the McDonalds Play Land near our home. The routine is always the same as our little Harmony orders her Happy Meal complete with her chicken nuggets and a toy. Harmony’s degree of hunger determines whether the food or the toy becomes the immediate focus but she has NEVER taken a second look at the printed, paperboard carrier box.

As she played, I read the text printed on the box and realized most of it was designed and aimed at kids that are older and unlikely to order a Happy Meal. I watched as other small kids and parents ignored the carrier someone had worked so hard to create and I had to ask, why? Who is this box designed for and is it really necessaryl?

McDonalds and the Three R’s of Sustainability

As everyone scrambles to create the perfect green gauge, I find that applying the simple guidelines of recycle, reduce and reuse will usually get the job done.

REUSE: To their credit, I am not sure if there is another major corporation on the planet that does as good of a job utilizing recycled materials as McDonalds. Almost all of their packaging, at least the items that are not made of plastic, have a high degree of recycled content, with in many cases a high percentage of post consumer waste recycled content. The Happy Meal box in question is 100% recycled paper with a minimum of 50% post consumer content, which is fantastic. Other companies could learn much from their example.

RECYCLE: While they are exemplary in their use of recycled materials, I have never seen anything resembling a recycling effort at any McDonald’s restaurant I have ever visited. I would hate to know how much McDonalds waste ends up in landfills on a yearly basis but I am quite sure it is enormous. I know the location near our office has daily pick up and the four very large dumpsters are all overflowing each and every day. I have to wonder why they don’t utilize a compactor to reduce the volume but better yet, why not at least make an effort to sort and recycle. Keep in mind the mountains of waste we see at a McDonalds restaurant is created only by dine in customers and probably a fraction of what is disposed of elsewhere.

REDUCE: This is the main point of my Happy Meal container story. If a Happy Meal was packed into a current McDonald’s small (1 to 3 items) bag the resulting waste weight would be three tenths of one ounce. By using the typical paperboard box, the end waste is 1.6 ounces. Over five times as much waste by weight and if we measure by volume, the differential is even worse.

I tried to find out how many Happy Meals are sold each year and it appears that number is a closely guarded secret. I did find several sources that indicate the Happy Meal accounts for as much 30% of a typical location’s profits. So let’s just agree the number is probably many, many millions, and based on the numbers above, one million Happy Meals adds an additional 100,000 pounds of waste to local landfills. BTW, the bag I suggested above would reduce that number to less than 19,000 pounds of waste.

This may sound strange and certainly unexpected coming from a career packaging guy but the truth is that in some cases the best packaging is no packaging at all. In other circumstances, minimizing the packaging that is being used is easier to accomplish than anyone realizes. Though waste reduction is the focus above, please consider the energy, transportation and space savings this one suggestion could produce? Perhaps even enough to help offset the cost of a way over due recycling program.

Assessment tools and scorecards are great and I applaud the effort but the fact is that even the best green companies tend to overlook the most obvious when it comes to packaging and sustainability.

Dennis writes in the area of sustainable packaging with his work appearing in numerous blogs and magazines, including his own blog, Inside Sustainable Packaging. Dennis and his company provide custom eco friendly packaging solutions through Salazar Packaging and stock green packaging products via GlobeGuardProducts, which is the first internet store featuring all eco-friendly packaging supplies. Recently Dennis also made news by launching GreenPackagingGroup, which is a B2B packaging blog and directory for eco-minded buyers. He is president and co-founder of Salazar Packaging.

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