Orlando, Fla. — A high-profile 2021 plan by restaurant chain Wendy's to include 20 percent recycled plastic in its drink cups has hit a snag: It can't get reliable supplies of resin from the chemical recycling processes its plastics industry partners are using.
The original rollout, which was widely covered in business media, called for Wendy's to include recycled polypropylene in some cups starting in early 2022 and to transition its entire line this year.
But a Wendy's executive said at an industry conference June 28 that it's been difficult getting consistent supplies of plastic from the chemical recycling processes, throwing off its plans.
Chemical recycling generally uses high heat or chemical reactions to break down plastics, compared with the grinding and shredding used in traditional mechanical recycling.
"One of the challenges we had is that the advanced recycling material that we had planned, and still plan, to include in the cups isn't there today," said Liliana Esposito, Wendy's chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer. "We need to get not just to the 20 percent stage but also be confident that we won't go backwards from that or be disrupted from that."
Wendy's, its cup supplier Berry Global Group Inc. and plastic supplier LyondellBasell Industries first disclosed their plans in a joint 2021 news release, where they said Wendy's was switching its restaurants from paper cups with a plastic lining to all-plastic cups, and that the plastic cups would have 20 percent recycled material.
They said the paper cups had limited recyclability because they used a lining, and the move to all plastic polypropylene cups would divert more than 10 million pounds of waste from landfills "as Wendy's works with Berry to expand recycled plastic use throughout its entire cup set."
But Esposito told the American Chemistry Council's Innovation and Circularity Summit, held June 28-29 in Orlando, that the chain has delayed using recycled plastic because of supply chain problems getting recycled resins.
"We can't say to 7,000 restaurants, 'Oops, in February we couldn't get access to the material we needed so you need to change out your cups,'" she said. "I think we will get there but there's still some work to do."
In a brief interview after her presentation, Esposito declined to discuss details of the recycled-content use and in response to a question about whether the cups have recycled content, she said: “We’re not claiming that at this point. We’re working on that, but we’re not. I wouldn’t make any claims on that today.”
In a June 30 follow-up statement, Berry said it has been supplying resin made by advanced recycling to Wendy’s since September 2022, meeting the initial 20 percent recycled-content goal that the restaurant chain outlined in 2021, when it said it would have the recycled resin in one of its larger cup sizes in 2022.
In 2021, the companies said they would add the remaining cup sizes this year. Berry said in the statement it was working toward that goal.
“For the remainder of 2023, we are working closely with our resin suppliers to help Wendy’s meet their goal of the inclusion of recycled content across their drink cup portfolio,” Berry said.
It said it has supplied Wendy’s with more than 500,000 pounds of advanced recycling resin certified to the ISSC-Plus standard.