If you order a Whopper from certain Burger King restaurants in New York City and Portland, Oregon, next year, you’ll have the option to get it in a reusable box. In a new pilot, the restaurant chain is partnering with Loop, the circular packaging program, to offer reusable sandwich containers and beverage cups that can be returned, sanitized, and used by the restaurant again.
“The benefit is, you’re able to serve your guests without having to create that single-use item in the first place,” says Matt Banton, global head of innovation and sustainability at Burger King. “This product is durable enough to go through the system multiple times, so it’s ultimately reducing our environmental impact, and minimizing the amount of single-use packaging that we have to produce as well.”
Since the fast food industry helped create “to go” culture—and corresponding piles of trash—it has faced longstanding public pressure to reduce waste, most intensely with McDonald’s foam clamshells in the 1980s. (By 1990, McDonald’s started to phase the containers out, but replaced them with single-use paper that was rarely recycled. It didn’t fully phase out styrofoam until 2018.) But there are signs that the industry is changing. McDonald’s also recently partnered with Loop to pilot reusable coffee cups. Corporate responsibility watchdog As You Sow has given Burger King a D rating when it comes to the sustainability of its packaging, but the fast food company has committed to recycle all of its packaging in U.S. and Canadian restaurants by 2025, and source materials from renewable, recyclable, or certified sources; if it can make reusable packaging feasible, that will shrink its environmental footprint further.
In the pilot, beginning in restaurants in New York, Portland, and Tokyo, when containers are returned to a collection bin, Loop will take them to be cleaned and sterilized, and then bring them back (customers are charged a deposit and get it back when they return it). Though the partners are currently testing various materials to create the final design, they’re aiming for a container that can be reused at least 100 times.
The pilot, which may be expanded to other cities, will test how the system can work. “Everything starts with the guests,” Banton says. “So, how do guests view the system? Do they adapt to it? Are there any concerns on their part? Operationally, are there any things that prevent this from being scalable? At the end of the day, what is the overall adoption?” Kraft-Heinz and other partners are also participating in the pilot. Depending on how it goes, Burger King may choose to scale it up and make it permanent.
“We know that sustainability is here to stay,” Banton says. “It’s something that our guests are looking for, and are starting to be more perceptive of who has sustainable practice and not. And we also know that we have to innovate and sometimes take risks and test things as well.”