If you eat at a McDonald’s restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil, your food will come on what looks like a typical plastic tray. But the material is actually made largely from food waste and other trash.
Arcos Dorados, the largest independent McDonald’s franchise in the world, which operates stores throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, is rolling out thousands of trays made from the material as it works to shrink its use of virgin plastic. The material, called UBQ, is unique in that it’s recycled from a mix of materials.
“UBQ’s process begins with unsorted household waste destined for landfills—banana peels, chicken bones, and other food leftovers; cardboard and paper; diapers and mixed plastics—everything besides glass and metal, which we remove and send out to recycle,” says Albert Douer, executive chairman of UBQ Materials, the Israel-based company that produces the material.
By keeping trash out of landfills, where food waste, in particular, emits potent greenhouse gases as it rots, the material has a “climate positive” footprint, meaning it helps avoid more emissions than it causes. Ideally, of course, the world needs to throw out less trash, and materials have the highest value when they’re recycled individually. But the new technology can help in the imperfect recycling system that exists now.
“Even in places in the world with highly sophisticated recycling infrastructures, over 80% of waste is deemed unrecyclable due to inefficient sorting, food contamination, humidity, and complex multilayered material end-products,” says UBQ cofounder and CEO Jack “Tato” Bigio. “UBQ complements existing recycling efforts and takes all of the residual waste that is en route to landfill or incineration, instead upcycling it into a novel raw material for the manufacturing industry. By positioning our technology at the end of the waste life cycle, we are closing the loop of materials reuse and enabling a truly circular economy.”
For the McDonald’s franchise, the shift is part of a larger effort to reduce both single-use and virgin plastic. “We started our plastic reduction program in 2018,” says Gabriel Serber, director of sustainable development and social impact at Arcos Dorados. “In that year, we eliminated 600 tons of plastics. In 2019, we removed another 700 tons of plastics. The good thing about the program is that those plastics will never return to our restaurants. This is a permanent program, so the impact is exponential.”
The company has rolled out more than 7,000 of the trays in its Brazilian restaurants, with thousands more in production, and plans to expand the use throughout the country. When the reusable trays eventually wear out, they can be recycled through traditional recycling infrastructure.
The same material could also be used in other types of products, from flooring to furniture. “Imagine entire McDonald’s restaurants made from UBQ,” says Douer, “or better, entire buildings.”