In a move that will directly touch millions of consumers, fast-food giant Wendy's is ditching paper cups in favor of polypropylene with recycled content.
The switch to single-substrate plastic cups supplied by Berry Global Group Inc. for all sizes is being touted by the restaurant company as being more environmentally friendly compared with the current use of polyethylene-lined paper cups.
Transitioning to all-plastic clear cups also will include the initial introduction of 20 percent recycled content supplied by resin maker LyondellBasell Industries.
"We just think this is an incredibly important first step," Berry CEO Tom Salmon said in an Oct. 20 interview. "It's going to require us to partner across the value chain to continue to demonstrate the opportunity to recycle these materials and drive improved recyclability."
Berry already is a supplier to Wendy's, which uses PP for its largest drink cups and paper cups for smaller sizes.
Wendy's and Berry will use a so-called "mass balance approach" that will feature 20 percent recycled plastic across all North American restaurants. Mass balance combines recycled resin and virgin resin in the cup manufacturing process. While 20 percent of the total resin used to make the cups will come from recycled sources, the actual specific resin mix for each individual cup could vary.
Moving to a clear, recycled-content large cup will take place in 2022 and all cups are expected to follow by sometime in 2023.
The Wendy's Co. is the sixth-largest fast-food company in the United States, with more than 5,700 restaurants.
"This is just one step. That's why we think it's going to gain momentum, for sure. We're thrilled to play a role as a leader in this space to demonstrate how to get it done," Salmon said.
Paper cups with PE lining have been a go-to approach for quick-serve drinks for years, but the combination of plastic and paper makes recycling more difficult.
Transitioning completely to plastic cups, the companies claimed, will divert an estimated 10 million pounds of waste from landfills during the first two years of change. And as the use of recycled content increases throughout Wendy's "entire cup set," the waste diversion total is projected to increase.
Berry has a supply agreement with resin maker LyondellBasell for "advanced recycled feedstock resins by mass balance," the companies said.
"Mass balance enables recycled plastic to be mixed with virgin plastic and processed in the same place, helping reduce scale-up costs and accelerate the transition to circular raw materials."
"From a LyondellBasell perspective, since this is done on a mass balance basis, it does not make a difference as the value will be determined based on the percent allocation. The 20 percent allocation was selected by Berry Global and Wendy's," LyondellBasell said.
As for what recycling streams — post-consumer, post-commercial or post-industrial — will be used to make the cups, LyondellBasell noted: "The waste plastics used will be a combination per the third-party supplier agreement and the criterial set forth by ISCC Plus."
ISCC stands for International Sustainability & Carbon Certification, a global system covering sustainable feedstocks.
"There are many benefits of plastics, including convenience," LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel said in a statement. "The issue we must address is plastic waste.
"This collaboration represents an initial step we are taking to make advanced recycled material available in North America," he said. "As waste collection infrastructure and technologies advance, we will be able to grow our offerings, further reducing plastic waste in the environment and retaining the value of plastics for as long as possible."
Wendy's said the move away from plastic-lined paper cups is "more sustainable."
"Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact of single-use waste, and we want to do our part as a leader in the quick-service restaurant industry to provide more sustainable options," said Liliana Esposito, Wendy's chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer.
While LyondellBasell was front and center in announcing the switch to all-plastic cups, Berry did indicate the processor will use multiple suppliers to provide recycled resin needed to produce Wendy's cups.
Berry has a goal to increase the amount of recycled resin in PP cups sold over time, and Salmon said achieving one with 100 percent recycled content can be achieved.
Berry, already a supplier to Wendy's, engaged the restaurant chain after Wendy's announced a goal to "sustainably source 100 percent of our customer-facing packaging by 2026." That led to the deal to switch to clear PP cups.
Wendy's already sells some of its premium drinks such as lemonades in clear cups, following a trend in the quick-service food industry to better and more quickly display and identify those drinks for employees and customers.
Salmon said he sees Wendy's decision as having the potential to spur other quick-service chains to make similar moves to clear PP cups with recycled content.
"The more we can do to demonstrate how plastic waste can be viewed not as an environmental liability but also as an opportunity is exciting for us," he said. "There is a number of opportunities the world has to address right now. Clearly one of those is how we are managing and dealing with plastic waste. We take that very seriously."