A shift from single-use recyclable packaging to reusables in the informal eating-out sector could have detrimental effects on the environment, the economy and food safety, according to a new study commissioned by McDonald’s.
The EU’s packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR), tabled in November last year, introduces a ban on single-use packaging for dine-in restaurants from 1 January 2030.
It also includes targets to expand the use of reusable packaging for takeaway consumption in two steps: 10% by 2030 and 40% by 2040.
However, the study by Kearney, a consulting firm, found the move will inevitably lead to a surge in plastics to replace the paper bags, wrappers, or pizza boxes currently used in takeaway restaurants and small eateries.
For dine-in consumption, Kearney estimates total plastic packaging waste would increase by “up to 300%”. For takeaway consumption “plastic packaging waste will sharply increase by more than 1,500%”, the study found.
Reusable packaging for dine-in would also need to be washed every time, requiring 1 to 4 billion litres of additional water, while raising new challenges related to hygiene and food safety, it says.
In turn, this is expected to generate extra greenhouse gas emissions linked to the production of new plastic items and energy used to wash the reusable packaging – by up to 50% for dine-in and up to 260% for take-away, the study found.
The Kearney study focuses on the informal eating out (IEO) sector, which includes restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks but also small eateries like the local kebab or chip shop.
It is “a small but very visible sector” because their food wrappers “may sometimes be found on the street” when people throw them away, said Johan Aurik who supervised the study for Kearney.
The informal eating out sector is currently heavily reliant on paper-based packaging like folding cartons, pizza boxes, paper bags, napkins and cups. In total, 56% of all packaging in those restaurants are made from board, 24% from paper and only 7% from plastics while the remainder is made from mixed materials.
“Everyone is in agreement that there is a serious problem” with packaging waste, Aurik said at a press briefing in Brussels earlier this week.
The question, he added, is how best to tackle it. And while reusable packaging may be the best solution in some cases, “for this sector it is not the right thing to do”.
McDonald’s weighs in
McDonald’s, the US fast-food chain multinational, says the shift to reusable plastics will revert years of effort to eliminate plastic from its restaurants, which are now “almost entirely” using fibre and paper-based packaging.
“We largely exited plastics from our restaurants,” McDonald’s executive vice-president Jon Banner told journalists in Brussels, adding that reusable solutions will mean additional costs for the sector.
To be economically and environmentally viable, “a reusable cup for example would need to be returned and reused 50 to 100 times,” Banner said. “And we know already that this is not really happening” in the informal eating out sector, he added.
“Of course, the idea of reuse seems like the obvious solution. But it’s more complicated than that,” he continued.
In Germany for instance, McDonald’s has been required by law to supply reusable cups to customers who demand them, even for takeaway meals. Yet, about 70% of those are never returned, even though clients are requested to pay a €2 deposit, the Kearney study found.
“It could end up in the garbage or landfill or being reused at home – we don’t know,” Banner said.
According to the report, the first priority should be to scale up recycling infrastructure for dine-in, while reusables should not be implemented for takeaway at all.
Packaging law under scrutiny
Banner insisted that McDonald’s supports the objectives of the European Green Deal but highlighted the “potential unintended consequences” of the Commission’s proposed packaging law.
“By focusing solely on reuse”, the regulation “will be actually counterproductive to the overall goals of the EU Green Deal. And we support the goals of the Green Deal, which is why this concerns us,” he said.
The issue goes beyond eateries – it’s the whole supply chain behind them which risks being affected too. “The entire retail sector will be impacted,” says Eleni Despotou, secretary general of FEFCO, the European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers.
As an example, Despotou mentioned strawberry boxes that are found on supermarket shelves. “Those are single-use and some are made from paper. What is the alternative if those were to be replaced by reusable packaging?” she asks.
According to her, the only alternative will be plastic because it is lighter and cheaper than metal, glass or wood. “But then, you have a problem with hygiene because these boxes will have to be collected, washed, and placed back on the shelves,” she said. “And during this handling process, there is a risk that pathogens will find their way into the food”.
“So even though the intention is good, the practical ways of applying it potentially causes much more problems than it solves,” Despotou told EURACTIV.
The Commission’s proposal is also being criticised for not taking into account the specificities of individual EU countries, such as the recycling and waste collection systems already in place at national level.
“In the EU Parliament, we will strongly oppose any attempt to impose unilateral choices from above, which don’t consider each State’s industrial specificities,” said Italian centre-right lawmaker Massimiliano Salini, who hosted an event in the European Parliament to present the Kearney study.
“We consider it profoundly wrong to privilege the reuse model at the expense of the recycling one,” he added, saying such an approach “can only frustrate the efforts of European companies to meet EU targets for recycling”. Salini is from the Forza Italia party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
His comments were echoed by Salvatore de Meo, another Italian MEP from Forza Italia who is drafting an opinion report on the EU’s packaging law for the Parliament’s agriculture committee.
De Meo warned that the proposal will have a huge economic impact on the recycling sector, which is well established in Italy. He also raised doubts about the Commission’s impact assessment that was put forward alongside the packaging regulation, suggesting that the data used for the cost-benefit analysis was not up-to-date or accurate.
The European Commission declined to comment on De Meo’s remarks. MEPs from other political groups did not respond to EURACTIV’s invitation to comment.