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McDonald’s is testing a new system of reusable, returnable coffee cups

As part of the experiment in the U.K., you’ll be able to return the cup to McDonald’s when you’re done—or drop it off at a network of collection sites at places like supermarkets.

McDonald’s is testing a new system of reusable, returnable coffee cups
[Photo: McDonald’s]

If you visit a McDonald’s in the U.K. early next year, you might notice a new option if you get a hot drink like coffee or hot chocolate: Instead of a typical disposable cup, you’ll have the choice to walk away with a reusable plastic cup and lid that you can later put in a special bin to be collected and sterilized for another customer.

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“Reuse is a really interesting, important tool in a suite of tools that we will need, and we’re exploring as we look to keep waste out of nature,” says Jenny McColloch, vice president of global sustainability at McDonald’s Corporation. The company is the first in the food service industry to partner with Loop, a company that also pioneered a new system of reusable packaging for mainstream consumer products like shampoo and ice cream from major brands. The pilot will test how Loop’s system could work in the context of fast food.

[Photo: McDonald’s]

In the U.K., most McDonald’s restaurants are already recycling paper cups, sending them to recycling centers that remove the plastic lining so the paper can be recycled. But a cup reused multiple times can have even less impact. The process is straightforward. Customers who choose the cup will pay a small deposit on it. If they stay in the store, they can drop it off in a Loop bin there and get their money back; if they take the cup to go, they can either bring it back the next time or drop it off at another Loop site later—like a Tesco supermarket, where Loop is also expanding. The cups are taken offsite to a Loop cleaning facility, where they are individually sterilized and hygienically sealed before they’re sent back to the restaurant. (If you don’t find a Loop site, the cup is also recyclable, but loses some of the benefit if it’s not reused multiple times.)

“You can now leave the restaurant with it and deposit it anywhere,” says Tom Szaky, CEO of Loop. “So you get that sort of to-go experience fulfilled, and you don’t have to deal with anything other than depositing it back in the Loop ecosystem.” It’s easier for customers, he argues, than lugging around their own reusable mug. “The key that always emanates from everything is how do we make reuse work for the most convenience-focused businesses and consumers, and really focus on that convenience of disposability while acting reusable.”

It isn’t McDonald’s first experiment with alternatives for coffee cups. In Germany, the company gives discounts to customers who bring their own mugs, and serves hot drinks in porcelain or glass mugs when customers are eating in the store. Of course, that’s how most full-service restaurants work. “Most traditional restaurants are entirely ‘reuse,'” Szaky says. “You order your meal and it comes with metal cutlery and washable plates and dishes, and so on.” But when most customers get their food to go, it’s not an option. In Germany, the chain started working with ReCup, another reusable cup platform. The new pilot with Loop will test the idea further.

“We’re using this pilot as a test to think about how a reusable model could work for our system, both operationally in the restaurant, and from a customer perspective,” says McColloch. “So, similar to when we trial new menu items, we have to understand what this means for our franchisees, what it means operationally for the employees at the restaurant, and the overall customer experience, from placing the order to the experience of the cup and the beverage, and all the way through to that collection process. We have a number of evaluation criteria that we’re going to be putting in place for all of those pieces.” They’ll test, for example, different incentives that can be used to encourage customers to bring the cups back. The tests will also show how many times the cups can be reused before recycling, though the design aims for 100 cycles or more.

It’s possible that the same system could also be used for other packaging. “If it works for hot beverages—and we’ve already talked to the team about this—[it could expand] to soda, or your McFlurry,” Szaky says. “And then from there expanding it to your hamburger, french fries. So that you can get everything from your chicken nuggets to your apple pie in a reusable alternative.” He also expects the system to expand to other restaurant chains. “The beauty is, the more players do it, the more convenient the recollection network becomes,” he says.

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The team at McDonald’s is hoping that others in the industry will also help the system move forward. “One of the things that we often see in sustainability, not just in packaging, is that the more aspects of society and the more different participants in any industry that are prioritizing sustainable solutions—and in this case, infrastructure and solutions to keep waste out of nature—the more it becomes easier for all of us to make progress,” says McColloch.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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