Starbucks and McDonald’s Unite to Push Industry Toward More Sustainable Packaging

Last week, coffee drinkers learned about Starbucks’ latest sustainability initiative – a plan to phase out single-use straws by 2020. But Starbucks isn’t the only fast-food icon exploring ways to lessen its environmental impact. Together, McDonald’s and Starbucks distribute a combined 4 percent of the world’s 600 billion single-use cups annually. And, while the two fast food giants have been making strides toward sustainability separately for years, McDonald’s announced that it will be joining forces with the coffee icon to tackle an issue that outweighs the brands’ rivalry.

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Earlier this year, Starbucks and investment firm Closed Loop Partners launched The NextGen Cup Challenge, inviting designers, entrepreneurs and even other competitors to join in creating a solution for sustainable packaging – with a preliminary focus on cups. This week, McDonald’s joined the initiative and matched Starbucks’ initial $5 million contribution. Participants of the challenge will receive up to $1 million in funding and guidance from McDonald’s and Starbucks staff to optimize the design for real-world application. Promising designs will enter a six-month accelerator program to ensure the scalability of the idea. To help inform the designers and guarantee the new cups will address the needs of all stakeholders, NextGen has convened an advisory group consisting of leaders from academia, government, recycling, design and environmental NGOs including World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Erin Simon, director of R&D and material science at WWF explains, “There has never been a greater need to tackle the ways in which we source and recover materials. McDonald’s participation is a strong step forward in building momentum from major brands to come together and develop innovative approaches to materials waste. Working together across the entire value chain of these major companies will allow us to create a comprehensive and lasting solution to this critical conservation challenge.” The challenge will officially launch in September.

This collaboration, which leverages the scale of two of the largest fast-food brands, can have a major impact in reducing waste and can create an approach that can be applied in the future to tackle industry-wide issues – not just within fast food. While the idea of tackling billions of single-use cups can seem daunting even to a global brand, partnering with a would-be competitor increases resources and brings additional knowledge and expertise to the table.