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Pioneering Solutions to the Plastic Challenge: Insights from McDonald’s Restaurants of South Central Idaho

Plastic pollution is a complex and rapidly growing concern with global plastic production and waste reaching alarming levels. It is an issue that exists for producers, consumers and recyclers, creating challenges at every step of the plastic lifecycle. On November 1, Boise State University students and faculty gathered with community members to explore plastic pollution at the fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable. The dinner table discussions focused on the challenges faced by McDonald’s Restaurants in South Central Idaho, through a case study presented by Twin Falls business leader Darren Kyle.

Ruth Jebe introduces the Fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable on "PIONEERING SOLUTIONS TO THE PLASTIC CHALLENGE," with attendees seated at tables focused on the presentation. The room is bathed in natural light, emphasizing the professional and attentive atmosphere of the event.
Ruth Jebe introduces the Fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable on Pioneering Solutions to the Plastic Challenge

Understanding the Plastic Problem

Plastic Production is Complex

Plastic is deeply entangled with our global economy, primarily derived from oil and transformed into various polymers. The massive diversity of these polymers complicates recycling efforts, as each type must be processed separately. In the United States, roughly 9% of plastic gets recycled, primarily due to the labor-intensive and costly sorting process.

Additionally, economic factors contribute to the plastic waste dilemma. The low cost of oil makes producing virgin (unused) plastic more economical than recycling, and landfill fees that favor dumping plastics exacerbate this problem. Historically, exporting plastic waste to countries like China and Southeast Asian nations allowed exporting countries (like the United States) to avoid investing in necessary recycling infrastructure, which highlights our need for systemic change.

Regulatory Challenges

The regulatory framework for plastic in the United States is highly fragmented, with solid waste regulations often handled by local governments. This results in varied recycling rules across cities, towns, and counties, making it challenging for recycling efforts to achieve the necessary scale for economic viability.

The Plight of McDonald’s Restaurants of South Central Idaho

Darren Kyle, owner of 12 McDonald’s restaurants around Twin Falls and south central Idaho, has been grappling with the plastic issue in his restaurants. While McDonald’s has made strides in reducing its plastic footprint, particularly through the elimination of styrofoam containers and cups, Darren’s primary concern lies with plastic cold beverage cups and lids.

Darren Kyle presents on the challenges of plastic disposal at his McDonald's franchises at the Fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable at Boise State University, addressing an audience seated at tables with orange cloths in a room with a view of trees through large windows.
Darren Kyle introduces the plastic disposal concerns faced at his McDonald’s restaurants during the Fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable at Boise State University, discussing pioneering solutions to the plastic challenge in front of an attentive audience.

These cups and lids, constituting roughly 70% of the plastic footprint in McDonald’s restaurants, are made from #5 plastic. Addressing this issue, however, is not as straightforward as it might seem, due to two major complications:

Lack of Local Plastic Recycling

McDonald’s restaurants in cities that collect plastic for recycling offer in-store recycling bins. However, in cities like Twin Falls, where plastic recycling infrastructure is lacking, these cups and lids end up in the solid waste stream. This demonstrates the need for a more comprehensive approach to recycling infrastructure development.

Drive-Thru Dominance

Approximately 75% of customers at Darren’s locations use the drive-thru, leaving only about 25% to dine inside the restaurant. This high drive-thru traffic poses unique challenges, as the cups and lids end up in customers’ hands and are subject to local regulations and customer behavior. Moreover, the drive-thru’s fast-paced nature makes it impractical to encourage customers to use refillable beverage containers.

A group of professionals is engaged in a discussion at a roundtable event, with a presentation screen in the background titled "PLASTIC CHALLENGE" from the Fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable, focusing on sustainable practices for McDonald's restaurants.
Participants at the Fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable, discussing sustainable practices for plastic at McDonald’s restaurants

Developing Strategies to Change

As tables considered possible strategies to reduce plastic waste in McDonald’s restaurants, several key aspects emerged:

Promising Possibilities

  • Collaboration with Local Businesses: Forming partnerships with local businesses, as suggested during the roundtable, could collectively advocate for improved recycling infrastructure, and address the lack of access to recycling in some areas.
  • Supplier Engagement: Leveraging McDonald’s purchasing power to encourage suppliers to adopt sustainable materials for cups and lids can drive industry-wide change.
  • Pilot Programs: Conducting pilot studies to incentivize customers to return cups and lids could provide valuable data and insights.

Out of Hand Issues

  • Recycling Deserts: Addressing the challenge of recycling deserts, where access to recycling is limited, requires coordinated efforts at the community and legislative levels.
  • Economic Realities: The economic factors that drive plastic waste need broader systemic solutions, potentially including policies that encourage recycling and disincentivize the use of virgin plastic.

Sequencing Strategies

  • Prioritization: Identifying the most critical issues, such as access to recycling, may require initial attention to lay the groundwork for broader changes.
  • Gradual Transition: McDonald’s can progressively introduce sustainable materials and practices, aligning with its goal of achieving all sustainable packaging by 2025.
A lively discussion is taking place in a well-lit conference room where attendees are seated around banquet tables; one man actively speaks into a microphone, gesturing with his other hand, while the rest of the group listens, some looking at the speaker and others conversing among themselves.
Roundtable attendees discuss potential solutions during group debrief

Key Takeaways and Questions

As we navigate the plastic challenge, Darren’s situation presented some clear key takeaways:

  • Collaboration and partnerships can be powerful tools for change
  • The plastic problem is deeply interconnected with economic factors and regulatory complexity, requiring systemic solutions
  • Incremental change, coupled with a long-term vision, can drive sustainable practices

Final Thoughts

The plastic issue faced by Darren’s 12 McDonald’s restaurants is emblematic of the broader issues faced by all businesses that use plastic. By addressing these challenges through strategic partnerships, gradual transition, and advocacy for systemic change, we can work toward a more sustainable future – one where the plastic problem is solvable!

Thanks to the participants at the fall 2023 Business Ethics Roundtable and, especially, to Darren Kyle for generously sharing his story. If you would like information on the next Business Ethics Roundtable, please contact Professor Ruth Jebe, Hansberger Endowed Chair in Business Ethics, at