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Chipotle got its hands dirty to achieve waste diversion goals

Dumpster with Recycling

Chipotle had to address its cardboard waste to get to 51 percent waste diversion.

Chipotle’s head of sustainability, Caitlin Leibert, celebrated her 10-year anniversary at Chipotle announcing a historic achievement for the brand: most of the company’s waste no longer ends up in landfills. 

Reaching a 50 percent waste diversion rate by 2020 was a key goal catalogued in Chipotle’s 2018 sustainability report, and the company was able to push that to 51 percent. According to the 2020 report, the baseline for waste diversion was 37 percent in 2016. 

"I know that 1 percent doesn’t seem like a drastic percentage," she said, addressing the company’s goal overshoot. "But let me tell you, that represents a lot of waste."

Over Chipotle’s 2,800 locations across the U.S, the company was able to divert 2,071,583 cubic yards of waste including 60,519 cubic yards of compost and 1,999,224 cubic yards of recycled waste; it turned 11,840 cubic yards of waste into energy.

Chipotle relied heavily on recycling activities to reach that level — 49 percent of its total waste ended up in a recycling center in 2020. Chipotle’s biggest waste product — in fact over half — is cardboard. That’s followed by plastic lids, straws, gloves and films. Its food waste represented only 14 percent of total waste in 2019 and that included other paper products such as napkins and paper towels. 

"We have to understand what are some of the low-hanging fruit that we can also tackle simultaneously," Leibert said. "We knew that when you have 55 percent of your waste being cardboard, recycling has to be an absolutely key component of a waste program." 

Chipotle recycles at over 90 percent of its restaurants. According to Leibert, Chipotle oversees the waste program at the corporate level. Chipotle works with the landlords of the 50 percent of its restaurant properties that have landlord managed waste to ensure responsible recycling and compost. The other half of its locations are managed with a national management partnership working with local haulers.

To understand the company’s waste profile, Leibert and her team relied on the low-tech, simple and manual data collection process of jumping into dumpsters and sorting trash. The original data matrix was built in Excel. By doing waste audits like this every year, Leibert was able to single out restaurants that looked off from a waste creation standpoint and figure out if that location was being oversupplied.

"We are 100 percent corporately owned, so we have a consistent menu and packaging across all of our restaurants so it makes our waste steam predictable," she said. "Which means that we’ve been able to over years of auditing, build out this matrix down to the very dollar. We can project and understand the amount of waste down to the fork."

With this in-the-weeds detail, Leibert could adjust purchasing or identify if a neighbor was dumping its trash into Chipotle’s dumpster, affecting the count. 

Leibert’s core principles for achieving her goal were time, data and a laser focus on achieving results. On the company’s waste diversion journey, it also piloted programs such as the Gloves to Bags initiative, which turns used plastic gloves into garbage bags used in Chipotle restaurants.

We knew that when you have 55% of your waste being cardboard, recycling has to be an absolutely key component of a waste program.

Chipotle worked with Revolution Bag, an eco-friendly trash bag manufacturer, to turn the 375 million used gloves at Chipotle into trash liners. The program started in Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento, California before expanding to 40 locations. At Revolution’s plant in Salinas, California, the gloves are cleaned and formed into pellets, then remade as bags. 

"There is no off-the-shelf solution for glove recycling," Leibert said. "Because it’s film plastic, it’s really challenging to recycle it and we’re talking about used gloves. The innovation was an upcycled and closed-loop initiative."

The program was able to bring film plastic waste at the restaurants down from 9 percent to 4 percent.

While composting only made up 2 percent of Chipotle's waste, and donations even less, Leibert highlighted that this is actually a success because it means chefs in the kitchen aren’t over-cooking and food preppers are mindfully preparing ingredients with techniques that use as much vegetable and protein as possible.

According to Leibert, the only things ending up in the compost are the seeds and core of bell peppers and chicken bones. And 60,000 avocado pits avoided composting as they became natural clothing dye.

Diverting waste from landfill is only one part of the solution to the world’s massive garbage problem. Reducing material consumption in the first place has to be at the core of corporate sustainability strategy. Chipotle’s new goal is to reduce overall waste by 5 percent by 2025. Among other things, it plans to invest in pilot programs that focus on using less plastic in packaging to achieve that goal.

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