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The drive for a sustainable future

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The drive for a sustainable future

September 19, 2013 - 06:19

As one of the most recognized global brands, McDonald's is standing tall in its quest to engage the consumer in its drive for a sustainable future.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM, Sept. 19, 2013 (PPI Magazine) -In an exclusive interview PPI talks to McDonald's senior manager for sustainable supply Europe, Jacqueline Macalister about its sustainability strategy and relationship with paper and packaging suppliers.

McDonald’s is standing tall in its quest to engage the consumer in its drive for a sustainable future

PPI: What can board and paper producers do to help you to further meet your sustainability objectives in the future? Could the industry do more to help you meet your targets?

Macalister: Our objectives for sustainable packaging in Europe are quite simply to reduce the amount we use, make sure the material is sustainable and encourage recycling after use. Crucial to the pulp and paper industry is the sustainable management of forestry resources. Forests provide critical ecosystem services that support biodiversity and wildlife, water quality, they store carbon and millions of people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods. So we need to ensure that they are protected. As a major brand we want to add our voice to that chorus and help drive demand for sustainably sourced wood fiber.

What is your experience of the relationship between paper and board producers and global brands? Is the industry offering what is needed? Is it a two-way process?

Our relationship with suppliers is based on long term partnerships, trust and regular dialogue. But if there's one thing we could work better together on its innovation. We all need to be more innovative. The environment we're operating in today is changing rapidly - the economy, raw material prices and providing value to customers. Our customers have expectations of us, which are constantly evolving - in particular environmental expectations - and we're trying to be ahead of the curve on that. So when customers expect us to use only renewable materials or wood fiber packaging from sustainable forestry we'd like to be in a position where we're already doing it. This is what we need the industry to help us with. And yes it's very much a two way process which is why we have a formalized innovation process to enable that dialogue.

Do you anticipate that in the future there could be any additional switches from plastic substrates to paper for some of your product ranges, such as drinks packaging?

I would say it's possible. Our goal is to use only renewable packaging in Europe by 2020 so we're looking at all our options. For many years we have opted to use paper because we see it as a sustainable choice. We know our customers love eating Big Macs out of carton clamshells and drinking soft drinks and coffee from paper cups. But equally customers sometimes like to see what they're drinking and eating through the packaging, they want to know is that there are real, fresh, quality ingredients inside. So plastic can sometimes be the preferred choice. Whatever we use in the future it will need to be from renewable and sustainable materials. I think this is an exciting area for the packaging industry as a whole and where we'll continue to see innovation emerge.

What problems do you encounter with the ‘throw away' image McDonald's has had in the past and what can be done to overcome this in the future? Is it hard to convince people otherwise?

Our brand is everywhere and the unfortunate truth is that sometimes that includes discarded packaging. We've worked to address that issue in Europe by managing litter patrols around our restaurants and surrounding areas, working with public bodies and increasing the recycling of our packaging in store. We've made some great progress on waste, litter and recycling; however, there's still more to be done.

Could McDonald's see itself involving the customer more in the sustainability message by possibly having different color boxes for recycling paper/board packaging and plastics so the customer takes an active part in separating the waste?

We talk about making sustainability "mainstream" so that it's part and parcel of every transaction and that includes recycling. When it comes to recycling we're putting a lot of effort and focus on how to simplify the process. This is challenging because there are different sensibilities and behaviors towards recycling in different countries and we have different systems based on what works best. So for example in Austria you'll see that the waste is taken by the restaurant staff which they then separate into different waste streams in a room specially designed room for that purpose. In other countries they do it differently.

Education - how do you feel about the role that McDonald's could play in the future regarding educating the customer about the benefits of sustainability and packaging through its own sustainability strategy?

We believe in making sustainable behavior easy. There's a lot of misconceptions and confusion out there about packaging - for example the difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging or the sustainability merits of virgin fiber versus recycled fiber. We don't see our role as "educator" or believe that the customer should have "perfect information", but we do try to promote coherent sustainability messages that resonate with them and give them the confidence that we're taking care of it for them.

What does McDonald's anticipate to be the big trend in the future regarding sustainability and its packaging? Our primary interest is recycling our packaging, therefore it must be made from recyclable or compostable materials. But ultimately we also want it to be renewable so I see the big trend as recyclable renewable material. With traceability what we want to know and what the customer cares about is: is it from a legal, acceptable and sustainably managed source? Therefore we want to drive that demand throughout our supply chains and continue to ensure that our standards and processes are strong, robust and giving us the correct information.

How much paper does McDonald's buy (wrapper, boxboard, tissue, cup stock)?

To give you an idea, we have 14 million customers a day in Europe and fiber makes up roughly 90% of our packaging.

As a large company that is a famous worldwide brand, and often the target of criticism for everything from gross capitalism to obesity, how does McDonald's believe it can gain credibility with its environmental/sustainability message in a very skeptical world?

We've worked on sustainability for many years with a range of stakeholders with whom we're open and honest about our challenges, our goals and how we are achieving them. But this may have been too much "behind the scenes" in the past and not visible enough to our customers. We recognize that and we're becoming more transparent about what we're doing and the journey we're undertaking. PPI

Sally Cousins is a journalist with experience in the paper/packaging sector.