McDonald’s Leads Lobbying Offensive Against Laws to Reduce Packaging Waste in Europe

Flawed assumptions and a “disturbing” lack of transparency characterise an industry campaign against reusable packaging, academics and campaigners warn.
Clare Carlile headshot cropped
McDonald’s packaging. Credit: lazy fri13th / Flickr, CC BY 2.0

McDonald’s is at the forefront of a campaign against new laws to reduce packaging waste in the EU, in what has been described by some insiders as the largest-scale lobbying effort they have ever witnessed in the European Parliament. 

The fast food chain, alongside a number packaging producers and trade associations, wrote to European policymakers at the end of April, demanding a pause to the legislation, which would champion reusable packaging in Europe.

The call follows mounting pressure from industry over the past year. Since June 2022, McDonald’s and other vested industry groups have funded three studies, launched two websites, and sponsored multiple articles attacking the legislation on the grounds it would undermine Europe’s net zero ambitions. 

The new EU packaging law, which was published in November, aims to tackle growth in packaging waste and single-use plastic. By 2040, the latter is expected to double in Europe, and to account for almost a fifth of the global carbon budget worldwide.

Campaigners and academics accuse McDonald’s and other industry members of promoting scientifically dubious, cherry-picked evidence in opposition to the legislation.

They point in particular to an “independent” study, funded by McDonald’s, which contained claims that proposed EU targets for packaging reuse could significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The EU’s new Packaging and Packaging Waste law that McDonald’s and others are opposing proposes a ban on single-use packaging in restaurants and cafes by 2030, and an increase in reusables for takeaway food to 10 percent by 2030.

Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, Deputy Policy Manager for Circular Economy at European Environmental Bureau (EEB), described the law as the “most lobbied on file that many people in the Parliament have witnessed.”

Industry members held over 290 official meetings with Members of European Parliament (MEPs) on the topic between the beginning of 2022 and early April, compared to just 21 equivalent meetings held by NGOs.

McDonald’s is responsible for over a billion kilos of packaging every year, equivalent to the weight of more than 100 Eiffel Towers. Fast food giants and packaging firms are opposed to the proposed EU law, campaigners and academics suggest, because it would likely require significant investment and infrastructure upgrades, as well as shifts in company packaging, branding and marketing.

“The current system works really well for them, because they get to keep using single-use packaging … it’s still very profitable,” explained Justine Maillot from the advocacy organisation Rethink Plastics Alliance. But policies encouraging reuse, she says, will require “systemic change”.

Scientists, campaigners and the UN believe that championing reuse in various forms is the best way to tackle the environmental cost of single-use packaging, which is made from fossil fuels, wood pulp, and other raw materials. Almost 10 percent of oil and gas in the EU is used to produce plastics, including for packaging, and almost half of the paper used in the EU is used for packaging.

The shift to reusables is “absolutely essential”, according to Judith Hilton, a Research Associate on Packaging Reuse at the University of Portsmouth. “Crucially, the big emissions are from extraction and production,” she said. “Anything that reduces this is going to make a massive difference in terms of emissions, toxicity levels, and damage to local communities.”

A McDonald’s spokesperson told DeSmog: “Packaging plays an important role in helping us serve hot and freshly prepared food quickly and safely to our customers, and preventing food waste. The mandatory implementation of reusables as the only solution comes with significant operational and financial challenges for the entire industry.” They added that, “while reusable packaging may be one of many potential solutions to explore further, we are concerned about the potential negative environmental consequences.”

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the law in the next 12 months.

The Lobbying Battle

McDonald’s and its packaging industry allies have engaged in a concerted lobbying effort in both the public domain and behind closed doors to water down the EU’s proposed legislation. 

In March, McDonald’s sponsored an article in Politico EU – a leading Brussels-based media outlet which attracts over 5.6 million website views in the EU every month – claiming that “Reusable packaging will be counterproductive to Green Deal goals”. 

The firm has also paid for multiple statements to be featured in Politico’s influential morning Brussels Playbook newsletter – claiming in one that, “Greenhouse emissions would increase by up to 50 percent for dine-in and up to 260 percent for takeaway” if Europe switched to packaging reuse.

By contrast, the European Commission claims that its new law could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 23 million tonnes a year by 2030. A US study published in March found that if a container was reused just 20 times it would reduce global warming potential by over 50 percent compared to single-use alternatives.

McDonald’s also spoke at an event in the European Parliament at the end of February with over 80 attendees, where it warned that the new law may “only make the problem [of environmental breakdown] worse”.

The speakers at the European Parliament event included McDonalds’ Executive Vice President and Global Chief Impact Officer Jon Banner, alongside MEPs Carlo Fidanza, Paolo de Castro, and Salvatore de Meo.

“In the last week, we’ve met with a lot of MEPs, assistants and member states, and the topic of McDonald’s has come up in almost every meeting,” Jean-Pierre Schweitzer from EEB told DeSmog in early April.

This lobbying blitz in European Parliament has relied on the findings of a much-criticised McDonald’s-funded study published in February that was carried out by the research consultancy Kearney.

Following the publication of the Kearney study, packaging industry members held 177 meetings with MEPs in the month, compared to 112 meetings in total during the 12 preceding months. 

Since the start of 2022, McDonald’s, Seda, and Huhtumaki – which are two of McDonalds’ key packaging producers – and trade associations representing their interests have held almost 40 official meetings with MEPs. Companies including the chemical giant Dow and soft drink manufacturer Pepsico have also held meetings with MEPs on the topic in recent months.

Pessimistic Assumptions

Campaigners and academics have accused Kearney of producing unduly pessimistic assumptions, ignoring the environmental benefits of reuse, and failing to be transparent about its methodology.

Kearney modelled a variety of reuse scenarios in the report, which examines the environmental impact of switching to reusable packaging systems. But McDonald’s and other trade groups have repeatedly cherry-picked its conclusions, citing findings that relate to a full, 100 percent switch to reusable takeaway packaging in the next decade when the new EU legislation proposes just a 10 percent switch to reusable packaging for takeaway food and 20 percent for takeaway beverages.

The report’s critics also believe that some of the assumptions that inform Kearney’s conclusions are far too pessimistic. The report assumes that reusable takeaway packaging, such as plates and cutlery, will be returned just three times before being thrown away, broken or contaminated – figures that were provided by McDonald’s “pilot data”. (Kearney’s report said that the figures were based on “real world” data from “several European countries” and “benchmarked against other external sources” to present “an accurate picture of the state of reuse in Europe.”)

However, campaigners and academics say customer return rates have the potential to be much higher. For example, if all restaurants used the same packaging, customers could then deposit it in a local collection system (rather than back to individual restaurants) which would likely significantly increase rates of reuse.

“Reuse has to be like recycling. You don’t sort your recycling according to where it came from. You can take it back anywhere,” explained Judith Hilton from University of Portsmouth. “One of the absolute keys in a reuse system is standardisation of packaging.”

Campaigners suggest that the EU’s new legislation is strongly opposed by industry groups because it could slash the profits of packaging firms and require significant investment from companies across the food chain. 

The European Commission estimates that the new packaging law could reduce the costs from environmental damage by €6.4 billion by 2030, and result in overall economic savings of over €45 billion. However, the Kearney study warns that switching to reuse would cost between €2 billion and €20 billion in initial investment.

Hilton said that companies are also worried that the new law would challenge their way of marketing. “In quite a lot of cases, the companies are selling the packaging, not the contents.”

However, Hilton is confident that companies will still have plenty of ways to market themselves, given that standardised packaging doesn’t have to be a regimented colour or shape. 

Environmental Benefits Ignored

German MEP Malte Gallee has claimed that the research did not consider any potential benefits of the EU’s new legislation. Experts say that Kearney does not appear to have considered the significant environmental gains from successful reuse systems, such as reductions in plastic pollution or deforestation. It did not respond to questions on this subject. 

The positive impacts of addressing existing environmental issues are rarely accounted for in studies of this kind, experts say, despite their importance in justifying policy reforms.

Christian Hitt, a research assistant at the Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, told DeSmog: “Stuff like deforestation and pollution, it’s a little more difficult to quantify,” he said – adding that studies should still be highlighting these factors.

Schweitzer added in an article for the EEB that the results of industry-backed studies are “easily skewed” in favour of certain products or policies, “notably when they do not reflect real world conditions or extrapolate results.”

The Kearney study, for example, claims that “reuse models would require 1 to 4 billion litres of additional water consumption (depending on reuse targets)”. However, researchers from Kearney admitted in a panel event in the European Parliament that they had not considered the reduction in water use associated with not producing as much packaging. 

Speaking at the event, Wolfgang Trunk, Policy Officer at the European Commission, asked the Kearney authors: “Did you also factor in the reduction in packaging waste from the reuse?… [For example] the avoided water consumption from the reduced production of paper? Is this factored in?”

One of the co-authors of the report responded: “Water use was not quantified in that sense. We discussed what the additional water use would be, as a fact nugget as opposed to a quantification.”1“No Silver Bullet – Why a mix of solutions will achieve circularity in Europe’s informal eating out (IEO) sector”, panel event in European Parliament, February 28, 2023. Recording on file at DeSmog.

It is “absolutely” misleading for the study to provide figures on additional water use from washing reusables without factoring in water use from the production of single use alternatives, Hilton said. “It talks about it on one side and not on the other. You just can’t do that.”

For many academics and campaigners, though, the biggest issue is a lack of transparency, which has left them unable to analyse many of the findings. Kearney has refused to share the data that underpins its study, which means that external organisations have been unable to scrutinise the results or methodology in detail.

“The publication uses unclear data and assumptions to undermine the role of reusable packaging,” Marco Musso, Policy Officer at EEB, told DeSmog. “It’s a bit disturbing that it’s then presented as unquestionable science.”

Kearney did not respond to questions about whether the extraction and processing of materials to produce packaging – the biggest source of emissions according to academics – were considered in its calculations. 

“This is a fight over data,” Maillot said.

Kearney told DeSmog that: “All key assumptions driving conclusions are listed in the study” but that it cannot disclose the full calculations because they contain “proprietary data” – information protected by commercial interests. The study does state, however, that some of the data in the report was provided by McDonald’s and from “interviews conducted with stakeholders across the value chain”.

Kearney told DeSmog that the study was “conducted fully independently” – a fact that is acknowledged within the report, which states that Kearney “is solely responsible for all analyses and conclusions”.

A Slew of Studies

In late April, McDonald’s and 12 industry members launched the lobbying group ‘Together for Sustainable Packaging’, which is dedicated to opposing the proposed EU packaging law. 

The alliance includes Seda and Huhtamaki alongside the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA), a trade group of which McDonald’s is a member. 

Its website, created by the Brussels-based PR firm Boldt, includes vivid warnings suggesting that policymakers should “beware the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation”. 

The website further claims that: “Several high-level independent studies suggest that replacing recyclable packaging from renewable sources with reusable plastic packaging actually increases emissions, water use, and plastic waste.”

It is not just the Kearney study that has been supported and promoted by industry groups. 

In early April, the consultancy giant McKinsey published a similar study to the Kearney report, claiming that single-use packaging would be “more cost-effective and result in lower carbon emissions” than reusable takeaway packaging.

While McKinsey has declined to answer questions about who funded its study, five industry trade groups – representing the paper, paper packaging, cartons, and corrugated cardboard sectors – also published a report on 6 April, dated to March, with identical findings, which cited McKinsey’s then-unpublished data. 

These reports followed a study published by the EPPA in June last year on reusable packaging. “Making reusable containers for takeaway obligatory will undermine the EU’s environmental goals,” the trade group claimed, following the publication of its report.

However, as with the Kearney study, the industry groups, EPPA, and McKinsey have been criticised by NGOs for failing to publish their full methodology and assumptions. And, like the McDonald’s-backed study, none of these reports appear to consider the broader environmental benefits to the public from a switch to reuse (for example from reduced plastic pollution), nor the wider environmental impacts of single-use packaging, such as land use or biodiversity loss. 

Together for Sustainable Packaging said that “while the EU Commission conducted an initial impact study, it lacked depth.” The group added that, “real world data shows significant challenges with retaining reusables in restaurants, impacting reuse rates and worsening environmental risk … It is normal for companies or associations to want to see legislation drafted and enacted on the basis of the best available facts.”

The Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) responded on behalf of the five trade groups, claiming that its study hoped to “remedy” a “lack of scientific evidence on the impact of fossil-based reusable packaging.” It also stated that “nobody wants to have a failed environmental model on their hands.”

But Christian Hitt said that a lack of data transparency is causing these industry-funded studies to fail. Scientists should be sharing findings, critiquing and peer-reviewing each other’s work, in order to create “a greater understanding of the system,” he said. 

McDonald’s is saying “trust us”, he said, while “producing something that can’t be fact checked.”

  • 1
    “No Silver Bullet – Why a mix of solutions will achieve circularity in Europe’s informal eating out (IEO) sector”, panel event in European Parliament, February 28, 2023. Recording on file at DeSmog.
  • 1
    “No Silver Bullet – Why a mix of solutions will achieve circularity in Europe’s informal eating out (IEO) sector”, panel event in European Parliament, February 28, 2023. Recording on file at DeSmog.
Clare Carlile headshot cropped
Clare is a Researcher at DeSmog, focusing on the agribusiness sector. Prior to joining the organisation in July 2022, she was Co-Editor and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine, where she specialised in migrant workers’ rights in the food industry. Her work has been published in The Guardian and New Internationalist.

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