Sorting it out!

It’s the weekend and a city-centre McDonald’s restaurant is busy with shoppers and families as they pop in for their fast food favourites. As he clears away the rubbish remaining from his lunch, 23-year old Aloïs is very positive about the new waste sorting system he’s using for the first time. “It’s a very good idea,” he says. “It’s in the spirit of the times. And it’s well explained.”

​Another customer chips in: “I’m a cleaning lady so I’m obviously quite aware of the stakes. Of course we’re going to take the time to do selective sorting before we leave. We do it at home so I don’t see why we can’t do it here.” The opinions of one father and daughter about the arrival of yellow bins for plastic waste sum up their significance. “They respect the law,” says dad. “And above all the planet!” says daughter Caroline.

Such feedback is music to the ears of Rémi Rocca, director of purchasing for McDonald’s France and the man driving the introduction of the new waste recycling system. “Reims was one of the first and one of the biggest cities we worked with on the new scheme,” he says. “Everyone was waiting for it – citizens, the city and other service suppliers really want to make it work.”

Citizens, the city and other service suppliers really want to make it work
— Rémi Rocca, director of purchasing for McDonald's France

But how did it come to this? How has plastic, a material that reshaped the modern world, become something we must now save the world from?

Falling out of love

When the first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 it soon lived up to its potential as the ‘material of a thousand uses’. Through its use in everything from electrical wire insulation to televisions, radar, frying pans, car parts and vinyl records, it transformed everyday life.

In 1957 plastic was seen as so exciting and glamorous that Disneyland opened an all-plastic ‘house of the future’ attraction, complete with plastic furniture, kitchen equipment and toys. Over the following decades it went on to enable artificial hearts, solar panels, disposable drinking bottles and strong, lightweight and cheap protective packaging for food.

Saving lives, producing energy, preventing food waste. What’s not to love about plastic? Quite a lot, as we now know.

This seemingly magical material has gone from hero to zero as we’ve learned how plastic that isn’t recycled or recovered correctly creates pollution damaging to ecosystems and human health.

We’ve also become aware of disturbing facts such as this: 60% of the estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic manufactured since the 1950s has ended up in landfill or the environment – where it will not be broken down for hundreds of years.

Recycling plastic is a huge part of the solution, but we’re still not doing enough. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which promotes the circular economy, 72% of plastic packaging, for example, is not recovered at all.

Inaction not on the menu

Like many sectors, the fast food industry has struggled to find a cost-effective way of responding to the recycling challenge. Plastic containers, utensils, straws and cups used once and thrown away are very rarely recycled because of the cost of sorting, collecting, transporting, cleaning and processing this waste.

In recent years, awareness of the risk to brand image of negative publicity about plastic pollution has prompted companies to take a closer look at possible solutions. In France, a regulation introduced in 2017 addressed specifically at the fast food industry has made the implementation of solutions for plastic sorting mandatory for all restaurants producing more than 10 tons of biodegradable waste a year.

“We came up with a city-level solution because the waste world is very linked to logistical constraints and when we’re talking about sustainability we need to reduce transportation,” explains Rocca. “A localised approach helps us to minimise the distance waste has to travel and establish partnerships with the city and its recycling centre so we can organise everything together.”

Dedication to the cause

When McDonald’s approached Reims seeking help to implement its solution, the city was very receptive. “As a city we have a role as a facilitator as we have the capacity to involve external stakeholders, citizens and the business sector and to encourage them to adopt new behaviours,” says Lucie Junet, head of European and international affairs.

Reims had already demonstrated its determination to curb plastic pollution and raise awareness of selective waste sorting. For over a decade it had run a programme of waste-aware workshops and training to give local people the information and insights they need to make the right choices.

In another sign of its commitment, Reims was one of the first signatories to the Oslo Declaration in October 2019, pledging to considerably reduce the harmful impact of plastic waste and littering on ecosystems.

This declaration came hot on the heels of the first-ever European Strategy for Plastics, at whose launch earlier last year EU Vice President Frans Timmermans echoed the city’s concerns and endorsed its collaborative approach.

If we don't change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050
— Frans Timmermans, EU Vice President

“If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics,” he said, “there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge that citizens, industry and governments must tackle together.”

Recipe for success

​At the start of the project to equip the city’s 10 McDonald’s restaurants with waste sorting bins enabling plastic waste to be recycled for the first time, the city invited local McDonald’s management and staff to its recycling centre.

“This was really key to improving their knowledge of the recycling process and understanding their role in the recycling value chain,” stresses Franck Malardot, the city’s McDonald’s franchisee.

“The close cooperation with the city’s department of waste has also been crucial to train staff and make them ambassadors of waste sorting in their restaurants, ever ready to help customers deal correctly with their waste,” he adds. “The city even has a special campaign truck that was taken round all the restaurants!”

Now the huge majority are happy to do it
— Franck Malardot, the city's McDonald's franchisee

How did customers react to taking on this extra task? “Some were reluctant at first,” says Malardot. “Perhaps because they think it’s OK to recycle at home whereas in a restaurant they expect it as part of the service. But now the huge majority are happy to do it.”

The results achieved by the sorting scheme and awareness campaign led by McDonald’s staff confirm customers are firmly on board – and helping to make a difference.

“More than 90% of what we collect from McDonald’s restaurants is not rejected at the sorting centre,” says Michael Zaegel, head of department at the Greater Reims Waste Department.

“What has made it work,” adds Rocca, “is that we are partners with the city in this. It also helps that Reims has a team dedicated to environmental education.”

Fantastic plastic ideas

The partnership between Reims and McDonald’s is an exciting step for both. McDonald’s intends to roll out the waste sorting scheme to all 1,500 restaurants across France over the next three years. And Reims’ has added its first collaboration with a leading restaurant sector company to its roll call of recycling actions.

These include a smart idea from the department of waste to develop a kit containing reusable plates, cutlery and glasses for use at the city’s music and food festivals – which means the city can ban disposable plastic products at these events.

The administration is collaborating with a citizen-inspired initiative to promote recycling which rewards those who take their plastic bottles to one of four collection points with eco-friendly products and free tickets for cultural and sporting events.

Reims is also home to Recycl’lab, a space dedicated to waste recovery where residents can bring their unwanted clothes and faulty equipment and get inspiration for reusing their products and learning how to fix them or fabricate new from old.

Saying goodbye to single-use plastics

Reims sees the French government’s ambitious anti-waste agenda as helpful to the general trend to recognise the seriousness of the plastic problem and to take action.

Already this year, three single-use plastic products – cups, plates and cotton buds – have been completely banned. And more will be follow in line with the government’s goal of phasing out all single-use plastics by 2040.

Reims is well equipped to keep up with this planned progress. For, as Malardot says – and his customers, his company and his city are demonstrating – “When visions and energies converge on the same objectives it is much easier to achieve your goals.”

Source of customer quotes: L’Union, ‘Au McDo, on trie (enfin) ses déchets’ by Alice Renard.

Tiphanie Mellor